Alex Corbisiero: good and proper

The Brian Viner Interview: England's Alex Corbisiero kept away from dwarfs and booze at the World Cup but, despite the brutal fallout, he enjoyed it and is now spurred on to become a world-class forward

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The Independent Online

Somehow, between playing rugby union for London Irish and England, Alex Corbisiero finds time to study for a BA in history at Birkbeck College. One of his modules this year examines Italy circa 1850, a crucible of internecine warfare and political back-stabbing. Maybe next year he could do a module on the Rugby Football Union circa 2011. He would have all the terminology.

But even if the 23-year-old prop could offer an opinion on who might prove to be the RFU's Garibaldi, will he be willing to do so? This is his first major newspaper interview, and it is his bad luck, if not mine, that it falls in English rugby's darkest few weeks.

Still, the RFU's travails are preoccupying nobody when I arrive at the London Irish ground in Sunbury, on an afternoon of watery, wintry sunshine. Training is coming to an end, with attack coach Mike Catt, the tracksuited embodiment of better times for England, booting balls for Delon Armitage to catch. I sit down with Corbisiero in the dug-out at the side of the pitch. The interview has been brokered by Stewart, a nice young PR man representing the insurance company QBE, for whom Corbisiero acts as an ambassador. Stewart asks, with an entirely straight face, if I can please make it a positive story about England. It's like asking a reporter to emphasise the good bits in a report on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

"I can't really comment on much about it, I have to tread very carefully," is Corbisiero's opening response when I bring up the still-explosive leaked reports. There follows a verbal game of crouch, touch, pause, engage and indeed disengage, with me pushing him for some further insights into the World Cup campaign, in which Andrew Sheridan's injury gave him his opportunity at loose-head, and him resisting. Was he aware in New Zealand of just how unimpressed some players were with some of the coaches, not least his own former boss at London Irish, Brian Smith, who subsequently resigned?

"I wasn't really aware, but wouldn't say it surprised me [to read such verdicts as "out of his depth"]. I wasn't expecting them but I wasn't blown away by those comments, either. Some of the players definitely felt a lot stronger than I did, and said some things that are very, erm, straightforward about the coaches that I personally didn't feel. It was a disappointing tour, the guys were going to be unhappy. Now we have to look back and try to fix things."

It has been a rollercoaster year for Corbisiero on the international front. He made his full England debut in the 59-13 Six Nations demolition of Italy, the land of his forefathers, the Naples Corbisieros, and also played against France, Scotland and Ireland as England won the Championship. Then came the World Cup, which perhaps makes his year less of a rollercoaster than a helter-skelter, spiralling ever downwards. I ask whether he was taken aback, as a Six Nations winner, by what now seems to have been decidedly diluted team spirit in New Zealand. He insists that there wasn't nearly as much "negativity" as the leaks suggested. "A lot of these comments have come in hindsight," he says. "At the time everyone bought into what we were doing, trying to be the best we could be."

He did not, he adds, make any remarks himself in the now-infamous questionnaire. "I was a bit uncomfortable writing it in the first place, and I was wary about who would read it, but I was sort of pressured into doing it, so I did it, but I didn't write any comments. There was a sheet with ticks and ratings, and you could comment at the bottom of each question, but I just ticked the boxes. To be honest I didn't really have an opinion of what could have gone better, because I'd never been there before."

He was pleased, though, that at least the scrummaging coach, Graham Rowntree, emerged from the brouhaha with his reputation intact, even enhanced. "He is awesome. All the coaches were good, but I think he's very good. Some people underestimate how technical the scrum is, but he really understands it, gets his points across well. It makes a massive difference to guys like Dan Cole and me to have one-on-one time with Rowntree, who's been there, who knows the technical side of it."

Corbisiero lavishes similar praise on his occasional partner in the England front row, the veteran hooker Steve Thompson. "He was massive for me, helping me, talking to me. He's very cool on the field. He says 'right, this is what we need to fix'. He knows I'm still learning and he's constantly talking to me. He'll happily tell me if he thinks I'm not doing something good enough, which is what we need in rugby, we need honesty..."

Honesty and a whole lot of other things, in England's case. Unsurprisingly, Corbisiero will not be drawn into commenting on Mike Tindall's successful appeal against his £25,000 fine and exile from the elite squad. "I felt bad for him, but it's not my position to comment," he says, explaining that he was nowhere near the notorious Altitude bar on the ill-fated big night out in Queenstown.

"I went home early. We went out for a meal and watched the South Africa- Wales game, but we'd had a game the day before and I was tired, so I went home with six or seven of the guys. I didn't get to that bar. It was really unfortunate what happened with certain guys, but... I was just focused on trying to play well."

Corbisiero will certainly not say it himself, but the rest of us can: that as a greenhorn he showed a level of maturity that was woefully lacking in some of the more senior squad members. He is an example to his elders, not least at the bar.

"I'm pretty teetotal," he says, "maybe one or two a year. It's personal preference and something I've done for the last couple of years. I had a knee injury, so I stopped drinking until I got healthy and I quite liked not drinking. But I've never been a big drinker, that's just not part of me. In New Zealand, I stayed in the hotel mostly. But you know, most of the stuff that happened was at the beginning anyway, it wasn't like it kept happening. Losing in the quarter-final was very disappointing, but for me it was still a great experience. I really enjoyed most of it, and I was proud to be out there with England."

His pride in the red rose is not diminished by his strong affection for the land of his birth, the United States, which remains so strong, in fact, that he refers to America as "home". He was born in New York City, first grandchild – which in an Italian-American family confers almost messiah status – to Richard and Joan Corbisiero, who ran the restaurant founded in 1951 by Richard's father, a Neapolitan immigrant. Riccardo's is in Astoria, Queen's, and, while I would hate to make glib associations, looks from what I've seen on the internet very much like the kind of place where Tony Soprano and his wise guys might hang out.

A wintry, watery smile, to match the sunshine. "I like a bit of The Sopranos myself, but my grandfather had to grow up with a lot of stereotypes. I enjoy going home. My grandparents live three streets from where I was born, and I spent every summer with them until I was 15. Now, I try to visit them as much as I can depending on my schedule."

The immediate family moved to England when he was five, and his father immediately enrolled him at the local rugby club, in Cobham. By his mid-teens he was a decent player, but still not judged good enough even for Surrey Under-16s. Then he started filling out, and joined London Irish. "That got me on to the radar. I played with England Under-18s, Under-19s, Under-20s, and Saxons."

Back in Astoria, where the family are all New York Jets fans, rugby is becoming less of a mystery. "BBC America show the Six Nations now, so there's some exposure, and they're all very proud of me." When he made his Under-20s debut, also against Italy, he got one of his opponents' shirts and sent it to his grandfather. It is duly cherished.

But Corbisiero wants to give the family back home something more to cherish; a world-class prop. "At my age I'm never going to be the finished article. I want to develop my set pieces, all round the park. My work rate is good but it can always be better, I can be more dominant in defence. My strengths are at loose-head but I want to be just as good at tight-head. My prop heroes are Phil Vickery and Jason Leonard, who could play on both sides of the scrum. Quality guys, inspirational."

His attack coach, Catt, could tell him a thing or two about both men, and has. He has talked at length to Catt since the World Cup. "He was gutted for us, but he wouldn't criticise. It's been more about getting me up to speed to play back here."

Corbisiero was replaced after 53 minutes in Irish's 15-11 defeat by Saracens at the weekend. Which is not really how he likes it, for his appetite for self-improvement is as mighty as his appetite for his dad's chicken parmigiana. He still lives at home. And of course doesn't drink. And studies hard. So what are his vices? There must be one. "Food," he says. "I could eat all day."

We laugh, and shake hands, but he suddenly looks anxious. "Please try not to print too much about the whole World Cup thing," he says. "You know, 'Corbisiero says the coaches were right and the boys are dickheads'. That's not what I meant."

Alex Corbisiero was speaking on behalf of QBE, Official Business Insurance Partner of Premiership rugby. To win a training session with Premiership rugby players, enter the QBE Rugby Pro competition at www.qberugby.com

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