Scenic route gives Perry perspective

New scrum-half strikes a timely blow for the alternative passage into the game's elite
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The Independent Online

Perhaps it was the arrival of the Monty Python musical Spamalot in the West End. Or, more likely, the dismal run of England's results in south-west London - five defeats in the past 10 home matches against major unions. Either way, Andy Robinson's selection of the uncapped 28-year-old scrum-half Shaun Perry to face New Zealand at Twickenham today comes with the subtitle: And Now for Something Completely Different.

Perry, despite his years, has been a professional rugby player for only 17 months. Before that he was a professional welder in Dudley near his native West Bromwich, paid to turn out not dive passes and box kicks into the 22 but JCB digger bases and 10-metre-long machine tools. Now, early in his second season full-time with Bristol in the Premiership, he is an England vice-captain.

Robinson has been criticised in the past for left-field choices - an 18-year-old Mathew Tait starting away to Wales, 25 minutes for Henry Paul against Australia - but with this one the coach must be hoping to hit it out of the park rather than fall to a third strike. "Shaun has organisation and composure around the breakdown, and an outstanding speed of pass," Robinson said. "Plus there's the cheeky way he plays the game."

It is rare in the open era to find a player with such an off-field story as Perry's. He grew up in Tipton - last-known England international, Steve Bull in football - and followed in his father's footsteps with his trade, welding for 40 hours a week.

His on-field story has included captaining England A under the coaching of John Wells and Brian Ashton (now Robinson's assistants). And Perry is, in fact, a veteran of Twickenham as a losing finalist in the NPI Intermediate Cup for Midlands One club Dudley Kingswinford in 1999, and winner of the Tetley's County Shield with North Midlands in 2004.

But England are concerned with defending the World Cup in France next year. Perry watched the 2003 final in the Dudley Kingswinford clubhouse "with breakfast and a pint for a fiver". He had just moved to Coventry, where he spent two seasons in National League One before signing for Bristol in the summer of 2005, after playing all his rugby before that with "DK". Perry scored more than 60 tries for the Dudley first XV in five seasons, although a hat-trick at Scunthorpe and four away to Sandal might not impress the likes of Byron Kelleher, his 45-cap opposite number today.

So it is an unusual route from the Black Country to facing the All Blacks, but DK's chairman, Roger Port, says that is precisely the point. "It shows you don't have to be in an academy with a Premiership side," said Port. "Those academy players don't play enough rugby, whereas Shaun was playing every week. He always had a talent. Our coach, Mark Wilson, knew Dean Richards and recommended Shaun to Leicester, but they said they had a kid called Harry Ellis coming through. Why didn't Worcester pick Shaun up? Because they don't look at teams like Dudley Kingswinford. I'm convinced there are a lot of Shaun Perrys around."

Only at 25 did Perry have some kind of epiphany. He rang around a few clubs higher up the ladder, joined Coventry, and toured with England Counties to Canada in 2004. "I thought that was the only England shirt I was going to get."

Even Bristol's coach, Richard Hill, a former England scrum-half and captain himself, had once passed over the man he now praises for an "international quality" display against Wasps earlier this season. "I'd been alerted to Shaun before by Tony Lanaway, who was the England Students manager when I was the coach," said Hill. "Foolishly, I had ignored him. So many people get missed because Premiership clubs think that if you haven't played England Schoolboys you're not worth looking at."

Perry was accustomed to "lumping big pieces of steel plate around", yet fitness not technique has been his biggest battle in the Premiership. No more bacon sandwiches, burgers and pies. "What Shaun produced against Wasps was very mature," said Hill. "Good communication, kicked well at the right times, a threat around the fringes, had a hand in all our four tries and his cover-tackling was outstanding."

Asked how he had warded off "second-season syndrome", Perry replied: "If I could put it down to anyone it would be Hilly. He's a good mentor, analysing the games one to one. He keeps my feet on the ground, which does need doing sometimes."

Kyran Bracken believes Perry "deserves to get his chance" now. Bracken also made his debut against the All Blacks at Twickenham, famously surviving a brutal stamp on his ankle from Jamie Joseph. Those hunting Perry this afternoon include Richie McCaw, the world's premier flanker. But Perry seemed nonplussed when asked if he would have preferred a debut against less testing opposition.

Finally the former welder forged a reply. "They're a great side but I can't get rolled up in the occasion. I'll play the game I've been playing for Bristol and do my basics and hopefully that will be enough."