Alex Corbisiero: Those knees are still a sore point


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When Harlequins’ England loosehead prop Joe Marler namechecked Alex Corbisiero as the country’s No.1 player in the No.1 jersey, few would have argued but there is a nagging doubt. Corbisiero may be the thinking man’s idea of the modern-day front-rower – strong and technically brilliant in the scrummage and a dynamic and ever-present threat around the field – but his fitness remains a concern.

As he gazed around Twickenham, where he helped Northampton win the  Premiership final against Saracens last May, at an event on Friday to promote ticket sales for next year’s World Cup, he said: “My main goal for this season  is to stay healthy, stay fit, keep playing and build back my old form and keep improving. Sitting here today it starts to sink in that the World Cup is not too far away, and what an opportunity it would be to be involved.”

While England toured New Zealand in the summer, with Marler as first-choice loosehead and Saracens’ Mako Vunipola beginning six months’ recuperation from a knee injury, Corbisiero was excused the trip by head coach Stuart Lancaster and headed for three weeks’ rest with his Italian-American family on Long Island, New York.

Any prop’s joints take a pile of punishment in the scrum, but the state of Corbisiero’s knees is a touchy subject for the 26-year-old, who has missed more than half of England’s matches since he made his debut against Italy in February 2011. Even allowing for the two Tests in Argentina when he was called up by the 2013 British & Lions in Australia, he has played in only 19 matches out of a possible 40 with England. And just three of a possible 20 since November 2012.

“My medical history, I keep to myself,” said Corbisiero. “The knees feel good. I’m playing, training. It’s pretty handled by England and Saints, my load is managed based on how the knees feel, making sure I’m right for the weekends. I don’t do every session but I’ve had a great pre-season, I’m in as good a shape as I’ve ever been.”

Corbisiero played only nine times for Northampton last season after a move from London Irish, whose coach Brian Smith described his departing man’s knees as “degenerative”.

The most Premiership matches he has ever started in a season is six, but when he returned last May he was crucial to Northampton as they beat Leicester and Saracens in the Premiership play-offs and Bath in the Amlin Challenge Cup final. In 2012 he started England’s win over New Zealand at Twickenham and in 2013, he played the first Lions Test, missed the second  injured and scored the opening try and was hailed man of the match by head coach Warren Gatland after the 41-16 win in the decider.

Today in the Premiership at Wasps, with England forwards coach Graham Rowntree in attendance, ‘Corbs’ will pack down again with the man he credits with bringing out his “hard edge”: Saints’ captain and hooker, Dylan Hartley.

“You want to be ruthless and aggressive,” Corbisiero said. “Dylan’s in your face and confrontational. Playing with him definitely ups my level of that. That ruthlessness at set pieces, he expects that week in, week out. I’m easy going, I keep my head in a controlled place. But at the same time bring that intensity. Having him next to me definitely helps.”