Perry prays for a new life from Brian

Bath full-back's hope springs eternal as he renews acquaintance with mentor Ashton
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Matt Perry enters the new year with renewed hope. For one thing he is up and running again, for another Brian Ashton is back at Bath. As far as Perry is concerned, things can only get better.

Once one of the world's most accomplished full-backs, he became a most unsuitable case for treatment. "I can't tell you how many injuries I've had," he said. "I've lost count." Perry has made twice as many comebacks as Jonny Wilkinson - this is entering Guinness Book of Records territory - who today is expected to reappear for Newcastle against Worcester.

Perry began to suspect that fortune doesn't smile on the brave after an extraordinary couple of incidents. In the Guinness Premiership derby with Gloucester at the Recreation Ground in October he was looking very good indeed when, as the last line of defence, he made a tackle, took a knee to the head and was knocked out. He was unconscious for four-and-a-half minutes.

Perry returned to duty for the Heineken Cup match with Glasgow in December and there was an action replay. On virtually the same blade of grass, he made a tackle, as the last line of defence, took a knee to the head and again had to be carried to the changing room not knowing whether he was coming or going. He was going straight back to see the neuro- surgeon, and the good news was that a brain scan revealed the old grey matter was intact.

"I was in the depths of despair, to be quite honest," Perry said. "I'd played half-a- dozen games on the bounce, it was going well and I was starting to feel really confident. You take one step forward, then you get injured and it's two steps back. Frustrating isn't the word."

Wilkinson has not played for England since the World Cup final in Australia 25 months ago; Perry's international career stalled after an impressive Lions tour of Oz in 2001, when he played in all three Tests. "I think my injury problems began with the Lions. I had a groin strain but that was related to a much more serious problem with my back, where a number of discs had degenerated due to wear and tear. At some point I'm sure I came back too early."

From Millfield School, Perry was introduced to Bath in 1995, where he first came under the influence of Ashton. "I was very lucky that Brian was my first senior coach," Perry said. "I was taught very good habits at a young age. I was impressed by the way he got his points across.

"It's all very simple but very effective. Everyone knew their roles and they had to be able to perform. It was all about playing into space. His approach to the game is very confrontational and always on the edge. You play with your heads up and you find that space. He tends to get the best out of you."

Ashton, who reignites his career with Bath for the Premiership game against the leaders, Sale, tomorrow, coached at the West Country club from 1989 to 1996 before spending two fairly uneventful years in charge of Ireland. His return to England as assistant to Clive Woodward coincided with the best rugby ever seen at Twickenham, and it hasn't been the same since he became manager of the National Academy in 2002.

The England connection with Bath can almost be described as incestuous. In addition to Ashton, Perry rubbed shoulders with such Red Rose luminaries as Jack Rowell, Sir Clive, of course, and Andy Robinson.

Perry may have been around for 10 years but he will not be 29 until 27 January, and with 36 appearances for his country, his first against Australia at Twickenham in 1997, he remains, despite the setbacks, England's most capped full-back. He was outstanding during the 1999 World Cup, when he was one of only four England players to play in all five games.

"I haven't given up hope of playing international rugby again," Perry said. "I've suffered what can be described as an occupational hazard but I'm a very competitive animal, and I know what it takes to succeed in professional rugby." Nor is he discouraged by the fact that, with the retirement from Test rugby of Jason Robinson, England are not spoilt for choice at full-back.

"If I didn't think I had a chance I wouldn't still be playing the game. I'm ambitious, not only for my club. You never give up hope. Putting in all this work would be meaningless if you didn't have a goal. The people at England know my game inside out, they know my strengths and weaknesses. I've never been known as an out-and-out speed merchant. I'm probably more of a footballing full-back."

Whereas Robinson - England were never entirely sure whether to play him at full-back or on the wing - was dynamic and unpredictable, Perry was more the connoisseur's full-back, positionally perfect, as safe as houses under the high ball and no slouch either at scoring tries.

When Ashton was coaching the England back line there were tries galore. "England's strength is now in the pack," Perry said. "You no longer see too many coaches in this country who are hellbent on attack. The way the game is developing it is also much more difficult to break defences down."

On the Lions tour of Australia in 2001 Bath had two full-backs, Perry and Iain Balshaw. The careers of both have been savaged by injuries. A rival then was the Wallaby hooker Michael Foley, now a coach at Bath. "Three years ago we were very close to relegation and the coaching staff here have done an excellent job," Perry says. "It's exciting to have Brian back but it will take him time to get back into the swing of things. We've got a young squad, and a lot of them wouldn't know much about him." That will soon be rectified.

Perry will be a spectator at the Rec tomorrow and will launch his latest comeback against Leeds next week. In March he begins to celebrate his benefit year. If he can keep out of harm's way, it could be a most memorable 12 months.