Perry the forgotten full-back is back in the frame

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The Independent Online

The high road into Bath offers a breathtaking view over many miles, on a clear day, to the new Severn Bridge and beyond. Then to get to the city and its Roman and Georgian treasures, you take a one-in-eight plunge down the Lansdown Road.

So it has been with Matt Perry. For almost three years, Bath's record-breaking England full-back was stuck at ground level, able to see no further than the next appointment with the doctor or physiotherapist. Only now, after the success of a revolutionary operation to repair a nerve in his groin, can Perry focus, once again, on the far horizons.

In the summer of 2001, Perry toured with the Lions to Australia and was hailed as the northern hemisphere's leading player in his position. Then the nerve problem - several times misdiagnosed since first presenting itself while he was with the Lions - helped lose him his England place, and reduced a flying Bath career to fits and starts: a couple of matches here, a dozen there.

Six weeks ago, an operation pioneered in Australia but thought to be a first for a British rugby player, rectified the complaint. "It was like standing on the edge of an abyss," said Perry. "It was going round in my head whether I was going to play again or not. To go through the operation and come out the other side, having seen what it's done to my leg, is amazing."

Perry was running freely 10 days after the surgery at the Princess Grace Hospital in London, and is one game into what he believes is the definitive comeback after any number of agonising false starts. "It kept coming back," he said. "It was there at the end of last season, and at the start of this one, then I had 14 games until December at Saracens when - shoosh - it just went again, a spasm all down my leg. I had loads of physio which wasn't working." That was when Bath made contact with an Australian specialist in soft-tissue injuries, Chris Bradshaw. "Basically the nerve had buckled and wasn't doing its job," said Perry. "Chris had seen probably 150 cases in Aussie Rules football but it wasn't recognised in this country. You can fight through it, but I wasn't lasting training sessions, and I was playing in games not feeling right. The nerve would settle down, but as soon as you exercised, it was there again."

Inevitably, after England's wobbles in the recent Six Nations' Championship, the re-emergence of a 27-year-old with 36 caps has prompted talk of more international honours. Perry was on the bench against Ireland and Australia in the autumn of 2001, but has not played an England Test since he was a substitute against France at Twickenham in April that year. Since then Iain Balshaw, Jason Robinson and Josh Lewsey have had spells in the No 15 jersey.

The intriguing question is whether the game, in becoming more defensively oriented, has left Perry behind. "I have been involved with England when it was the case that you went wherever the ball was," he said. "It's certainly how I developed my game; I started in the centre. I'm not a Jason Robinson, who's unbelievable, one on one, beating defenders. But I came on the England scene as a counter-attacking full-back, and it seemed to get lost some- where, when I was tagged a defensive full-back. I've nothing to prove in that sense, but there's more to me than that."

The fine form of Perry's club-mate Balshaw at full-back for England in the sparkling Six Nations of 2001 did not help. But the world keeps turning, and now Balshaw is off to Leeds while Perry, who joined Bath from Millfield School nine years ago, is likely to extend his stay, with a benefit season looming. "Matt's thought of highly here," said John Connolly, who this week agreed his own one-year contract extension as head coach. Bath, unexpectedly top of the Premiership after finishing second from bottom two seasons running, go to Northampton this afternoon, with Harlequins and Gloucester to come. They also have a trip to Montferrand next Saturday for the second leg of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup semi-final - Perry starred in the 29-15 first-leg win at The Rec last weekend.

Connolly would prefer Perry to spend the summer working on his fitness and kicking, rather than touring with England, either to New Zealand and Australia, or with the Churchill Cup squad in Canada. So far, according to Perry, there has not been a peep out of the national management. But Andy Robinson, Clive Woodward's assistant, lives in Bath and will certainly know all he needs to know about the player long regarded by his boss as an automatic choice.

"I'm not going to talk myself up," said Perry. "But being fit and ready to play is how I got myself there [with England] in the first place. If you put a string of games together, things will happen. With the experience I've had, I'm pretty philosophical, but still ambitious to get back. It seems like a long time ago, but I was lucky enough to have four or five years playing for England, then two or three years when I was nowhere near fit enough or well enough to play.

"I almost became just a supporter. I got to the stage where I was fooling myself, being positive as a way of ignoring that something wasn't right. Now I'm positive I can get my game back, and there shouldn't be any excuses."