Rugby Union: The prodigal son of Bath's tale

Paul Trow says the Rec factory has produced a new gem in Matt Perry
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It All sounded rather easy, until you realised who Matt Perry was talking about. The scene was the Recreation Ground and Bath were trailing Newcastle in their opening game of the new league season with only a short while to go.

Perry takes up the story. "I received the ball in the middle of the pitch about 30 metres out from the Newcastle line and stepped off my right past Tuigamala. Then a hole appeared in front of me so I shot past Gary Armstrong and I was through under the sticks. It was very enjoyable but I would have been happier if Bath had won."

This matter-of-fact description of an opportunist try may have the whiff of "and with one bound he was free" about it, but the modesty, almost shyness, with which 20-year-old Perry recounted the facts, made it all seem quite routine. The two players he had wrong-footed as he glided "under the sticks" are hardened internationals not known for generosity in defence, and yet his voice carried no trace of boastfulness as he disarmed the listener as easily as he had the Newcastle cover.

Pontypridd, today's opponents in the Heineken Cup, have been warned that Bath have again unearthed a gem from their prodigious nursery, which over the last decade or so has nurtured talents like Jeremy Guscott and Andy Robinson.

At Bath, individual brilliance is always subordinated to the overall cause of the team, but Robinson, now the club's coach, struggles to suppress his enthusiasm for Perry's potential. "The great thing is he's multi-talented. He can kick with his left or right foot, side-step off both feet and goes through gaps beautifully. He doesn't look that strong [5ft 10in and 13st] but he's a very strong tackler. He's the complete footballer in that he can play centre, full-back, wing or fly-half."

So far Perry has been slotting into Bath's back division wherever the gaps have arisen, and their current injury crisis is giving him a run at full-back. But Robinson is not convinced his long-term future lies there. "He's not definitely a full-back, even though he's playing well there at the moment. His best position is probably at centre - it will be interesting to see who we pick when we get a fully-fit squad. He's also working with Dave Alred because potentially he's our goal-kicker in the long term."

Perry himself - "I'm Bath born and bred" - relishes the club's "family spirit - all the lads get on well and new players are always welcome." It is not surprising he feels at home as his father, Brendan, a solicitor and former Bath president, and uncle, John Millman were the club's half- backs a generation ago.

The family pedigree, augmented by five years at Millfield plus a season with a club in Durban last year, have given Perry an impeccable rugby education. But he discovered how far he still has to go on England's Under- 21 tour of Australia this summer. "Our results there didn't go well but we gained a lot of experience. The Test, a 27-7 defeat in Sydney, was disappointing because even though we gave them a good game, we made silly mistakes and they capitalised on them.

"It's a totally different game in the Southern Hemisphere. We think they don't kick the ball in open play but they kick it to win it back. They're making the opposing full-back kick it back. Their game is fast and furious, they tackle and run so hard."

Already this season, Perry has noticed English rugby adapting along similar lines. "There's not as much space available. Centres are attacking the ball-handler more. Last season, things were more laid back, but the Scott Gibbs 'blitz' approach is very much in vogue. Also, teams are learning how to play against Bath's 15-man game and are spreading their defence to stop us moving the ball wide.

"There won't be an easy game in the Premiership this year. It's like football now where away wins are so valuable."

As a full-time rugby player on a three-year contract, Perry has put his eight-handicap golf game on the back burner and his education on hold. A sports science degree course awaits him at Bath University, but at present the Rec is his classroom. "You learn so much playing alongside someone like Guscott. Basically, I'm going from game to game, concentrating on my performances and enjoying what I'm doing. Obviously, I'd like to play for England but that is way in the future. At present, I'd like to get as many club games under my belt as I can.

"What's happened to me has been a bit of a surprise but I've enjoyed the past two or three years and I've worked hard on my game. It's a great thrill to see my name on the Bath team-sheet when it goes up."

On that basis, Perry's life looks destined to be full of thrills for years to come.