Alex Corbisiero recalls Twickenham 2012: ‘We were like sharks in the water’
Ireland will be hoping they won’t be swept away by another England storm this Sunday
Alex Corbisiero: ‘It was always my dream as a kid to play for England at Twickenham . . . As much as it would have been an honour to play for Ireland, in my mind, it would have been a little like giving up.’ Photograph: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images
Alex Corbisiero remembers the pinnacle of four all-too-brief years wearing the red rose.
“That game at Twickenham against Ireland was one of my most complete performances. Tom Court was just in the wrong place at the wrong time that day. There was a storm coming for Ireland after we lost to them the year before.”
St Patrick’s Day, 2012. Incessant, miserable rain. Fifty-nine seconds is all it takes for Mike Ross and Cian Healy to realise how unforgiving Twickenham is about to become. With Paul O’Connell hors de combat, Dan Cole turns the screw on Healy. The Irish loosehead goes down. Owen Farrell makes it 3-0.
“My first experience of playing Ireland was 2011,” Corbisiero remembers. “I had not lost in the jersey. We went to Dublin for the Grand Slam. It was to be a dream come true but we walked into an absolute fire. They were men possessed and all their emotional energy came from early scrum penalties. I’d never experienced anything like it.
“We had the same front row – myself, Dylan Hartley and Coley – and so did they. We were determined to put a hurt on them.”
In the shadow of the Triborough Bridge – linking Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx – sits an old-world Italian restaurant. Rick Corbisiero was a bond trader who married Loraine Collins. His grandfather opened Riccardo’s by the Bridge in 1951, having left Naples as a teenager in 1923.
That makes the great-grandson American, Italian, English and Irish all rolled into one bundle of scrummaging muscle.
“My mum was born in England but both her parents are from Dublin. My grandmother Elizabeth is from Ringsend, my grandfather Cyril is from Sandymount.”
Raised in the shadow of Lansdowne Road stadium, Bob Casey got wind of this sitting in the London Irish changing room. It was 2009 and Declan Kidney was about to end Casey’s nine years in exile (the last victim of Twickenham in 2000). The giant Kildare lock came home whispering about a 20-year-old uncut gem.
“I had lots of choices of who I could have played for internationally,” says Corbisiero, who was four when he moved from New York to London. “The United States came knocking very early and in ’09 Declan Kidney offered me an Ireland cap on the tour of North America. That was a tough decision. My dad wanted me to take it. ‘England are only offering the Saxons squad,’ he said. Italy had also come calling and, despite the pathway in Ireland looking like it would be quicker, I chose to stay and fight.
“It was always my dream as a kid to play for England at Twickenham. I watched the 2003 team win the World Cup. Those guys were my heroes. I wanted to be like Phil Vickery, Jason Leonard, Andrew Sheridan.
“As much as it would have been an honour to play for Ireland, in my mind, it would have been a little like giving up, a shortcut to international rugby. The pathway I had always been on was right in front of me. I didn’t want to take a detour somewhere else.”
Still pouring down on 22 minutes, when Eoin Reddan boots the ball out of an utterly dominant England scrum, Farrell makes it 6-3.
“I was already getting the better of Mike Ross. We were coming for them. The dominance was already there. With every scrum I felt an edge, we were in the ascendancy when Mike went off with a neck spasm or something . . .”
Ross is bent over in agony after a ferocious 34th-minute England shove. Within two back-pedalling phases Gordon D’Arcy is pinged for killing ball. Farrell makes it 9-3.
Ulster’s Brisbane-born loosehead Tom Court, who only took up rugby aged 24 in 2004, arrives at tighthead. What followed was relentlessly cruel. Up in the stand England head coach Stuart Lancaster is flanked by stone-faced assistants who currently run the Munster pack and Irish national side.
Pacific Beach, San Diego
Pacific Beach in San Diego is where Corbisiero currently resides with his fiancee, the US Sevens captain Abby Gustaitis. Still only 31 years old, he retired three years ago, having not played for England since 2015.
“Chula Vista [the last stop before Tijuana] is where the Women’s Sevens are training for Tokyo, so that’s primarily where I’m based. I go back to New York for work and I’ve a lot of family living in Queens still.”
Initially he took a sabbatical from rugby to cope with a catalogue of injuries and mental fatigue, returning to the US where he grabbed hold of an opportunity on American television as NBC dipped their toe into rugby union.
“I had a deal with Harlequins lined up, which I was really thinking about taking; it fit, and they had Joe Marler, so I wouldn’t have to play every game.
“Fortunately the NBC role came up. Turning it down, giving the opportunity to someone else, would have been too much to take, and if it went terribly I would only be out of the game for 18 months. I backed myself to come back and that’s what I wanted to do.”
But he had already reached the crossroads and chosen a new direction. The body was no longer in agony. Life as a talking head on TV suited him.
“More rugby was added, more business interests too, and I loved being close to some of my family over here.”
The prototype for a modern-day prop gone from the game in his 20s. All he had to show for it was two victorious Lions test starts, the World Cup in 2011, a Six Nations medal and a run on in the ’09 Premiership final.
“I’d climbed my mountain in rugby. The Lions in 2013 was the pinnacle for me. It took a while to be at peace with all of that but finally I feel that I am.”
He was one of the last of the 80-minute men, and the game took a heavy toll on his generation of versatile props.
“Your job is to be out on the field. You want to play. When you have these long periods of injury you are obsessing about getting back. I was very young so I had not understood the mental game, and was focusing on uncontrollables.
“Rugby is a 24/7 career. It is not like a nine-to-five job. It is like the military – you can’t switch off.
When a team is trying to problem-solve like that, the damage is already done
“You start to claw your way back only to get another injury. The constant setbacks – up, down – I found that very hard. My worst fault as a player was I didn’t have an ability to turn off the obsessive mind when there wasn’t anything I could do about it.”
It’s the 47th minute and having Court at tighthead has become dangerous. Before an Irish put-in, Corbisiero is primed to strangle the Australian. The inevitable collapse means Stephen Ferris – at blindside – gets dragged under all the English knees and studs. Farrell makes it 12-6.
“Tom Court came on and he just wasn’t equipped to deal with us. We were like sharks in the water. After the first couple when he turned in under pressure, that was the trigger. I knew I had him.
“There was penalty after penalty, but one moment sticks in my mind. Donncha O’Callaghan was behind Tom and I could see they were trying to talk about what was going on. Donncha was showing Tom angles with his hands. When a team is trying to problem-solve like that, the damage is already done. It was just rinse, wash and repeat. It’s very hard to fix scrums. You can’t fix scrums until a Monday morning.”
Remarkably, the contest stays alive until the 58th minute, when Nigel Owens runs under the posts after witnessing another mangled heap of drenched green jerseys. Farrell’s conversion makes it 19-9.
“Yeah, that penalty try was one of my favourite moments at Twickenham. I’ll never forget it; I looked in the tunnel of the scrum and could see Cian Healy sitting down facing the wrong way – in the middle of the scrum. He had folded in and had this defeated look on his face.
It is at the cost of English rugby that all these English coaches are in Ireland doing great things
“Cian is one of my contemporaries, someone I had to compete with, but really he is one of my heroes. Especially now on this last chapter. After all those injuries, to be able to produce the performances he does, I always saw Cian as the gold standard. That’s how good I wanted to become. So, to see him like that stuck in my head.”
It gets worse for the Irish pack as Ben Youngs, off a 74th-minute scrum penalty, taps and scampers over (the aerial shot shows how much punishment Corbisiero is inflicting on Court).
“It’s an incredible feeling when that is happening at Twickenham and the crowd are singing Swing Low. I remember the same feeling during the third Lions test against Australia.”
On Tuesday March 20th, 2012, the IRFU advertisement for a “high-performance scrum coach” holds them up to ridicule as it looked like a knee-jerk reaction to the 30-9 defeat. In reality, it was the start of a process to move Ireland past reliance on one tighthead – John Hayes then Mike Ross – in every generation. (Court became a Lion in 2013 but that’s more of a geographical yarn.)
Up in the stand the row of England management – Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree – had three very happy heads.
“It is at the cost of English rugby that all these English coaches are in Ireland doing great things.”
Corbisiero says Rowntree had a “huge influence” on his career and expresses genuine “respect for Stu”, but what resonates is the praise he spares for Farrell.
“Andy Farrell, in my whole life, is the most inspirational speaker I’ve ever stood in front of. His words and the way he breaks it down, he really captivates a room behind the game plan. He builds belief in you. Owen is really developing into that. They are leaders of men.
“Even under Stuart you could potentially argue he was head coach, and then he worked under Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland on Lions tours. I do think he is someone who is born to be successful.”
He was present for two Farrell speeches already filed away in the Al Pacino Any Given Sunday cabinet.
“That ‘Lions mentality’ speech before the  third test was probably one of the best I ever heard. And what he said on the eve of beating the All Blacks .
“Just how he breaks down teams that seem invincible, he would make you believe, just by the way he analyses their strengths. He is hard on you but he sets high standards, so when everyone is being called out you have no problem with that. A relentlessness to get back on your feet, get back in the game, Andy embodies that. The way he captivates the playing group was amazing.”
Healy is a year older than this Anglo-Italian-American with Dublin roots. In a sliding doors moment, Corbisiero could still be living his boyhood dream on his favourite patch of grass.
If England can match the physicality they had last year at the World Cup I think they have too much for Ireland
“If I had gone over to play for one of the Irish provinces, I probably would have been managed better and not pushed to play straight away and pulled between club and country. Trust me, it definitely crossed my mind, what could have been. At the same time, I wouldn’t change anything.”
An Englishman at heart, he’s content calling the Six Nations as the face of rugby in the US.
“If England can match close to the physicality they had last year at the World Cup I think they have too much for Ireland.
“Ireland’s game is based on go forward, they need quick ball. When a defensive team like England line up, chopping you up time after time, I don’t think any team can beat them. But they are a little light up front, missing Mako and Billy [Vunipola], that’s what worries me. If [Henry] Slade and Manu [Tuilagi] are back, I’d play Farrell at 10 and go for the more physically direct team. That’s how they blew them away last year. But, whatever happens the year before, the other team usually comes back with a vengeance. England needs to be on their money physically. If they are they’ll be too much for Ireland.”