Shaun Perry, scrum-half and welder. There is nothing very exotic about England's new No 9, especially when considered alongside one of his long-forgotten predecessors at the Bristol club, Bevan Chantrill, who could be found mining gold in South Africa when he wasn't helping his country to the 1924 Grand Slam. Another Memorial Grounder, the marvellous goal-kicking centre Len Corbett, played alongside Chantrill while earning a week's money running the local chocolate factory. Those were the days: a Rider Haggard character in one corner of the back division, Mr Willy Wonka in another.
Royal surgeons, High Court judges, tea planters, political private secretaries, colonial governors... the white shirt has been worn by all these and more. The international honours board in the clubhouse at Coventry, for whom Perry played before moving up to Premiership level at the ripe old age of 27, features a certain William Oldham, who secured a couple of caps before the First World War. His job? He was a workhouse master. Perry may have had it hard by modern standards, but he doesn't know the half of it.
There is something unusual in the man's make-up, none the less. Thrillingly unusual, in fact. If professionalism has gone some way towards democratising a game once wholly dominated by chaps from the fee-paying schools, a little privilege still goes a long way. A significant number of those named to face Argentina at Twickenham this afternoon were talent-spotted long before they started shaving and won age-group honours while playing for such renowned educational establishments as Millfield, Stonyhurst, Merchant Taylors' and Oakham. Perry is different. He may have sneaked a game or two for the Midlands Colts XV, but to all intents and purposes, he slipped through the net. A decade and a half spent playing for Dudley Kingswinford RFC says it all.
Six days ago, he made his Test debut against New Zealand and performed rather well, signing off in memorable fashion by clinging on to a kick from the marvellous Aaron Mauger that hit him square in the breadbasket and running fully 65 metres for a try in front of the new £100m south stand. Where might he have been watching the game, had he not found himself in the thick of it? Perry knew exactly where.
"I'd have been in the clubhouse bar at Dudley Kingswinford with my mates," he said. "Assuming I wasn't needed by Bristol, of course. It was always one of life's pleasures, watching an international game with the blokes I played alongside every weekend, and I still go back as often as I can, just to keep in touch. Rugby has been fantastic to me over the last couple of seasons, but if you forget your roots, you're disappearing up the wrong road.
"I spent a long time at DK. Some people tell me I spent too long there, but I disagree. I loved it there, playing with a great set of people. It's hard to leave a place you love, isn't it?"
But leave he did, driven by the fear that he was selling himself short. Dudley Kingswinford, who play their rugby off the A449 between Kidderminster and Wolverhampton, were in National Division Three North at the time - a decent standard, but some way short of stellar. "I felt I had to change clubs and move up a level if I was going to get myself recognised, so I chose Coventry," Perry said. "I gave it everything I could, but even then it was difficult to put in the extra time I felt I needed because I was working 40 hours a week on the welding. I'd always make it to training, though. Two sessions a week at Dudley Kingswinford became three sessions a week at Coventry, but I never missed. I wouldn't say I was ever obsessive about my rugby, but I was pretty serious about it."
So how did the Bristol move in the summer of 2005 happen? On average, Premiership clubs sign about a dozen players a season from National League One sides, half of them foreigners with international experience or former top-flighters finding their way back after lean spells. Genuine rookies rarely get a look-in. How did he catch the eye of Richard Hill, the director of rugby at the Memorial Ground? Was it a case of one long-retired England scrum-half identifying something of himself in the younger man?
"You'd have to ask Richard that," Perry replied. "I do recall the sequence of events, though. I played against Bristol for Coventry when they were top of our division and set to go up, and scored two tries, one of which was disallowed. While speaking to Richard after the game, he said the referee was right not to award it. I said I thought it was perfectly OK and we had a good argument. It actually became quite lively, to the extent that I was genuinely surprised when he got in touch and asked me if I was interested in a move. I'd always felt I had something going for me as a rugby player, but it was still a shock to be asked to join a Premiership club. I spoke to my employers, who were absolutely brilliant. They said: 'Give it a go, Shaun. If it doesn't work out, you can always come back'."
During his days as England's half-back, Hill set new standards of preparation by routinely throwing 200 passes a day. He has been every bit as tough on his protégé as he was on himself, and the effects are obvious to the most untutored of eyes. "I've always had confidence in my pass," Perry said, "but Richard has made it better. He's spent hours and hours improving my technique and I'll always be grateful to him. Having that sort of expertise behind you helps a hell of a lot, especially when you find yourself up against someone like the All Blacks. I was as nervous as anything before last week's game - it was some occasion for a newcomer, what with the standard of the opposition and the size of the crowd - but I was convinced right from that start that even if everything else went wrong, my pass would hold up. And it did, I think."
Pretty much everything held up, as a matter of fact. The All Blacks, as is their wont, gave Perry a warmish welcome during the opening exchanges, invading his space at the base of the scrum, harrying and hurrying him around the fringes of the rucks and mauls and clattering him off the ball. Yet they failed to deflect him from his purpose. The longer he stayed on the field, mixing it with the aggressive Byron Kelleher and attempting to work out where the predatory Richie McCaw was likely to materialise next, the more at home he appeared. If there is a weak point in his competitive make-up, he hides it remarkably well.
"In many ways, what helps me deal with the pressure of a situation is the scrum-half position itself," he explained. "You're right there in the middle of it all, every step of the way. If I'd been making my debut on the wing and found myself standing around for 10 minutes waiting for a touch of the ball, I'd probably have been in a right old state. At half-back, you don't wait 10 seconds.
"On Sunday, I put in a kick almost immediately and while it wasn't the best ever, it turned out all right. From that point on, I felt part of it. They went after me a little - a stray arm here, a stray leg there, the usual niggly stuff - but as I was expecting something out of the ordinary in terms of physicality, it didn't affect me. I struggled more with the anthem, to be honest with you. I'm not one for tears, but it certainly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."
Bristol have now produced four England scrum-halves in the post-war era. Bill Redwood, the first of them, managed only two caps; Richard Harding accumulated 12; so, too, did Kyran Bracken before joining Saracens and winning a whole lot more. It is therefore perfectly possible that by this time next year, Perry will be the most decorated of the lot. Should he shine today against the crafty Agustin Pichot, who also knows what it is to shed sweat and blood on behalf of the Bristol club, he will cement his current advantage over Peter Richards, of Gloucester, and head into the 2007 Six Nations Championship as undisputed first choice.
Not bad for a chronically late arrival from the barely charted interior of West Midlands rugby. Perry first played for Dudley Kingswinford as a grubby little urchin in the under-eights and stayed there into his early 20s, giving himself heart, soul and two broken ankles to the cause - a limited cause, certainly, but one that meant the world to him. Over the last season and a half, he has made 25 Premiership appearances for Bristol, most of them terrific; captained the England second-string having made only one previous appearance; and made a try-scoring Test debut against the best team in the world. How many Shaun Perrys can there be, down there in National League One? Perhaps the Premiership fraternity should take a closer look.Reuse content