- England and Lions prop chats to RFUtv about his physical development
- Blend of nutrition, conditioning and dedication to become modern prop
Alex Corbisiero looked every inch the modern, all-action prop on the biggest stage of all, rock solid at the scrum and raucous in the loose during Lions’ first Test victory over Australia – even clambering off the deck to bulldoze through for a clean line-break late in the first half.
Chosen by Warren Gatland to start the deciding Lions Test in Sydney on Saturday, billed as the biggest game of rugby since 2003 by the Wallabies, the 24-year-old is a visibly changed athlete from the one that emerged for England in 2011. And before he even hits his prime as a loose-head prop – warmly described as his “man years” – Corbisiero feels leaner and stronger than ever before.
But to credit his transformation – shedding six kilograms of fat without compromising his core power – to the physicality of advancing through his 20s would do a disservice to his unerring dedication and desire for work, allied to a willingness to listen and try new concepts.
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Recalling the player that made an emotional debut against Italy in the 2011 RBS 6 Nations, he said: “I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been, I’m lifting more and I’m fitter – which comes with being leaner and in better shape.
“You want to have weight at the scrum but compared to when I made my England debut I’m 6kg lighter. That was predominantly fat, which has now been replaced by muscle.
“The set piece is your bread and butter and there is no substitute for that, especially at Test level. But now we’re expected to do everything. Carrying, tackling, clearing out and getting to breakdowns are all part of being effective on the field – that’s how we're measured now. That’s the modern game, that’s how it’s evolving and we’ve all got to strive to stay in this environment.”
With the England squad only together for 14 weeks of the year, Head Coach Stuart Lancaster puts great emphasis on personal responsibility with his players. Deeply protective of the established culture, Lancaster regularly reinforces that England cannot expect to be a world-class, World Cup winning side in 2015 without a world-class mentality permeating all their behaviour on and off the field.
An unassuming torch-bearer of the honesty Lancaster demands, Corbisiero first targeted his diet, discovering he was severely intolerant to wheat and dairy after a blood test at London Irish.
It was quite a stretch for a man whose grandfather ran a successful pizzeria – hardly known for restricting bread and cheese at mealtimes – in Queens, New York but after taking five weeks to eradicate them from his system and a further six weeks of eating properly, the Northampton Saints-bound prop noticed a significant difference.
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“On game days I used to have quite bad stomach aches, feel bloated and not feel good. I put it down to nerves but now I think it was because I was eating so much pasta and so much bread, thinking carbs were needed for the game. It was actually doing more harm than good and now I feel so much better.
“The conditioners tell us there is no substitute for a good diet, you can do all the hard work you want but if you’re not strict when no one is watching and you’re at home on your own, it’s pointless. I’m not going to say I’m perfect – no one is – but as I get older I hope to get bigger and leaner at the same time. It’s an ongoing process and it’s part of being a sportsman. If you want to keep getting better, especially in this environment, every per cent counts.”
Proficient scrummaging technique allied to natural strength meant the set piece was always an area where Corbisiero excelled, as his performances in the 2012 RBS 6 Nations, when England won three away games for the first time in history, showed.
Against a trio of tight heads who will be remembered as greats of the European game – Martin Castrogiovanni, Adam Jones and Nicolas Mas – Corbisiero did not take a backward step, before obliterating the Ireland scrum and forcing a penalty try in the tournament finale at Twickenham.
Photo: Getty Images
But to become an effective force in the loose, a smarter approach to fitness was required and he sought out extra sessions with the England strength and conditioning team.
“There’s more power endurance, functional-based fitness that mimics a game more, which works well for me,” he added. “The watt bike is another tool which in the week is not a heavy load on the body but you get a hell of a blow on it and lactic acid in your legs – it’s a great way to lean up.
“It’s the balance: eat right, train hard, have your days off, you have your meals when you don’t want to – it’s a progressive process.”
If that was not the spark which ignited this metamorphosis in Corbisiero, the overriding principles were re-emphasised by high-profile visitors to the England camp when then interim Head Coach Lancaster first gathered his troops in Leeds in January 2012.
Gary Neville, Jamie Peacock and, most pertinently, Kevin Sinfield told the players that you find out about yourself “when the curtains are drawn and nobody is watching”, a point which resonated with Corbisiero.
“It’s up to you, no one is going to hold your hand,” he concluded. “We all work hard and push ourselves, but we also have the knowledge that when we’re away from each other or at home, we’re all still aiming for that goal of 2015 and being the best we can.”
And, should Corbisiero reach rugby immortality with a first Lions series win in 16 years on Saturday, skipping the cheese sandwiches or clocking up those extra burning sessions on the watt bike will be more than worth it.