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Alex Corbisiero: Growing Rugby in America

By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt

Alex Corbisiero was born 30 years ago in New York, son to an Italian Restauranteur. At four, he moved to England with his family. At school he picked up rugby. At a young age, he showed great promise. At 17, he was playing professionally. A decade later, he was facing life post-playing.

“Corbs” played 75 games for London Irish from 2008-2013, and then spent three high-profile seasons at Northampton Saints, chocking up another 28 games and a spate of injury woes.

According to former front-pack Irish teammate and recently retired Canadian standout lock Jebb Sinclair, Corbisiero was the “best loosehead in the world from 2011-2013” but suffered from “terrible knees.” He adds that Corbs “eats like a savage… food everywhere.” I get the impression that Corbs’ old mate would be permitted to chide; the two were close during the 2012 season at Irish, and Sinclair refers to Corbisiero as a “top bloke”.

Indeed, Alex Corbisiero is a “top bloke.”

He’s also thoughtful and intelligent. We discussed a few of the major topics in rugby, from recent high-profile international retirements, to NBC airing the Premiership match between London-based teams Saracens and Harlequins live, to the USMLR’s growth and what it can possibly mean for rugby worldwide, especially in North America where increased exposure is timely.

Corbisiero has resided in Miami, Florida for the last two years, having returned Stateside following retirement from the oval ball at only 28. He sat with me to reflect on his career; the impact the two Lions caps and impressive 31 England caps had upon him, facing retirement after a one-year sabbatical, and the future in broadcasting – and beyond. Most importantly, there’s his own consultancy firm, Team Corbs, focussed on growing the game globally.

Rugby is at a great crossroads right now. There is, Corbs says, “a lot of opportunity ahead” for rugby during this current period of change. On the one hand, there are shifts happening which make those within rugby uncomfortable. On the other, that discomfort may be the catalyst for the kind of change that needs to happen in order to move things forward. To that end, it is an exciting time with world cup a year away in Japan.

Recently there has been a fair amount of turnover on the international front, with the most recent high-profile announcement that Joe Marler is quitting his international duty with England. Corbisiero empathizes completely as a fellow front-rower.

“It’s a very very tough sport. As someone who has been through it, I can completely understand where he’s coming from. Playing for England is a huge commitment. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like being a father, and all that goes with that, as well as the toll it takes on the body. To make that mature decision – I have nothing but respect for him. No one will ever make that decision easily, or without a heavy heart, so for him to come to that conclusion and to be honest about it, especially with a World Cup a year away, it tells you something. That’s why you take him seriously. I know Joe and he’s a family man, and he’s able to put that above rugby. That’s amazing.”

Corbisiero himself was fortunate to have a few seasons playing professionally before he was beset by a string of stubborn injuries, eventually leading to him taking a step back from the sport for a planned one-year sabbatical. He feels fortunate to be part of a few key moments in rugby that some professionals on the pitch week in and week out never experience.

I asked what the standout moment was in his career.

Corbs replies that for him it was the third test for the British and Irish Lions in 2013. “It was my most complete game. There are other moments that touch that – I’d say beating the All Blacks at Twickenham was a day that was close up there; there was winning the premiership final , and a few other things on the way. But I’d just say the Lions. There was so much at stake, it had been such a tough time missing out the Six Nations , and not getting picked initially. Deep down I knew I could be there, and in my mind I thought I should be there. So, to actually get there and in that last test make a real difference; it’s really my proudest moment, and the one I most reflect on after rugby, and the one that other people remember.”

Not long after that career high, Corbs sustained a couple of injuries, preventing him from being able to play at his optimum. This lead to a period where he was forced to reflect on his rich history within the game despite his age in years, to think about his future even though he should have been feeling he had years left to contribute.

Eventually, he decided that he needed to step back. “It was very very tough,” he admits.

“We spoke about Joe saying goodbye to international rugby. For me to say goodbye to rugby on the whole, that was so tough. It was everything I had known. I had played rugby since I was five, been a professional since I was 17, had done university at night, so it was the only life I had ever known. There was no ‘civilian’ life. So, for me the hardest part was two-fold: I was saying goodbye to rugby and moving forward, but also coming to peace with it at the same time. I had to accept it. I knew I could not be better than I had been before my injuries…. I had spent two years trying to get back to where I had been before the Lions. But I was not getting the results.

“There was no satisfaction in that cycle for me. I could probably still be playing somewhere but I would be at about 80 percent and frustrated and miserable that I’m not at my best. I found it hard to have balance at the time. I was probably too much rugby for my own good, so when it wasn’t going well it made it that much harder.”

He realized that in order to be content with his contributions and proud of his achievements, he would have to come to a point of acceptance, to “put some of the memories I had into a fond light so I could be proud of my body of work in rugby.”

Anyone would agree that Alex Corbisiero can say with certainty that his career ended well. “How I represented myself with England, the Lions, with my teammates and coaches – all that means a lot to me and always will. The best part of accepting it was I was able to turn my life forward and focus on the future.”

Corbs hoped that taking the sabbatical to regroup would allow him to return to the pitch as planned. But life often has other ideas. While he didn’t know he’d never be back, “part of me didn’t really want to go back. Once I got the NBC role and I’d had time there and was developing and progressing, then they offered me more years, I realized it was very easy to commit to broadcasting and to say no to rugby.”

Our conversation turns to his current work with NBC and Corbs brightens up.

Broadcasting rugby in America is on the up. “We started sort of at the base; rugby had no real core followers in America. It had more of an expat following. My job was to sell this product to the American rugby fan who didn’t have direct access to it. We’ve done that over time. This is year three now, and looking forward to this weekend, we have live on NBC the Harlequins and Saracens – we are getting that window – and premiership rugby moved the fixture from afternoon to Saturday night for us to be able to put this event on.

“It is a great moment to reflect on what we have been able to do over the last two years, and how we have been able to add layers to it – Six Nations, Champions Cup – and NBC has the next two World Cups committed here, including Women’s World Cup, 7s World Cup, and the U20’s. Then, long term let’s see where the American market develops, let’s see where MLR and USA rights go. These markets are starting to be palatable to the mainstream broadcasters. You have got to credit NBC for being the first.”

No one is prouder than Alex at how well rugby is doing in his country of birth. “Being here two years, I have witnessed major growth that I can quantify with my own eyes. It is not an overnight switch, but there is definitely a pathway to progression here, and this sport has a lot of room to grow.

“A huge catalyst to everything we do is getting the Eagles as competitive as possible – this will galvanize more rugby fans. There’s no secret that those NBC windows had Team USA playing in them when they set viewership records.”

Turning the conversation to how Major League Rugby will benefit the US and Canada, Corbs admits that “Canada seems more familiar with rugby culturally, even though it’s a smaller market. Canada has produced on the international stage and has respect, like America is gaining now. The MLR will really benefit Canadian rugby as well. The players that shine in those leagues will get picked up in Europe. You are starting to see it. The MLR is a shop window for those leagues to look in to.”

It’s an exciting time for growth. The fact that there are more team announcements in the offing is proof that the market is ready to take on a reboot of professional rugby here at home.

On that front, Corbisiero was instrumental in “connecting the dots” regarding former England and Saints back Ben Foden’s signing with Rugby United New York. “ I think it is really noteworthy that someone like Ben was able to make that commitment and believe in it. It is very exciting, and I was happy to help. I really just want rugby to go well over here. And I think a guy like Ben will help immensely. And I know Ben, he’s a good guy, he will give his knowledge back.”

We agree more high-profile signings will happen in the MLR. “It has to be the right fit, the right time. It isn’t just about the players moving into another position on-field, it’s also about some current or recently retired players moving into coaching roles. What a result that could have on the current landscape here with all that rugby knowledge.

“Not only does it bring more domestic eyeballs to the sport, but more people will look across the pond with interest to see how the league here is growing.”

The cross-contamination of exhibition matches being played between premiership teams and MLR teams makes for exciting possibilities, which are endless once the two start to mix more.

All of Alex Corbisiero’s interests with broadcasting and his behind the scenes work to help the MLR get a foothold aside, his actual labour of love is “Team Corbs”, an umbrella covering several rugby-related ventures.

One of Team Corb’s roles is to help young rugby players from around the world (primarily at private schools) who wish to attend American Universities make the connections necessary to get the ball rolling. “My role is to help recruit and facilitate the process. Not just as a recruitment point but also as a support system. How to get ready to attend an American University, from the SATs to VISA’s, to understanding everything, and then offering support while at University.” They then help them find the “pathway to the MLR” or another post-graduate job. It is about being a “team” and taking care of each member.

“That’s the whole aspect of Team Corbs. Once you’re on the team we look after you with that team kind of vibe – it is very much culturally centered around the good values of rugby, of how I like to conduct myself.”

They’re also going to be doing some MLR recruitment with players and coaches, helping to make connections there.

But, the real passion for Corbisiero is the scrum coaching he offers. “That’s my passion really, one aspect of coaching I really like to get my hands on. One of my points of difference while I played was the scrum; part of that was the time and the detail I put into it. That’s why I was able to be successful at it. So, I have developed my own system with Team Corbs.”

Corbisiero’s method is an organized, easy way to learn so that everyone in the scrum is uniform, all doing the same thing to get a more efficient result. As he explains, scrums are usually eight expert individuals who know their roles really well and then bring it together, “whereas my method is eight players who have drilled and coached and learned to maximize the best of their eight as a whole to perform the same task.

“Think of Roman Centurions with their shields up; if they all didn’t step in time and move the same leg at the same time and have all that detail with their structure and their organization, they would lose the battle and be unsuccessful. So it’s kind of like that same sort of thing – applying that same set of principles – manage the scrum in that very detailed way. Less smashing the machine and more learning the patterns of movement. With my experience in rugby, I realize we don’t have to make it harder on our bodies than it already is. We can be a bit more practical with the way we learn it.

“Ideally I would like to put it into camps and schools and programs and help coaches best teach it, because I think it is very much one of the areas that it is under-informed in rugby. I think a lot of people who coach rugby stay away from it because they don’t know it. I think it’s one of the ways I can give back to rugby, especially in America.”

The future for Alex Corbisiero is obviously rugby-centric – NBC work, and the Team Corbs umbrella, and also trying to get involved with the USA Eagles 15 Club which is a philanthropic organization working to help the Eagles 15s men and women. It’s a passion project Alex is involved in to help grow rugby.

As to the thought of full-time coaching, right now it’s not on the radar. “Coaching is so full-on that you can’t explore anything outside of rugby. It’s a 24/7 job. You’re never not coaching. I have friends who love it and they have a passion for it and that’s why they will be good at it. That 24 hour commitment excites them. For me, the broadcasting – with the potential to move into different sports – is the skillset I am working on now.”

Our subsequent discussion about rugby in North America feels more like two friends having a coffee. Corbs sympathizes regarding the current state rugby finds itself in Canada, an opinion most of us share. “For a union to have no money going into a world cup year, that’s serious for the entire program in the country. On the side of the players, it is clear the world over that at the elite level the 7s and 15s programs have split – with the Olympics they’re two separate programs.” We agree it’s a roll of the dice Rugby Canada has been forced into with 15s as a last chance to save all the programs in Canada. “I don’t know what the answer is, and I feel badly for all parties involved.”

He’ll watch with interest as professional rugby continues to unfold in the US and Canada. He believes it will benefit our programs immensely. I think so too, if Alex Corbisiero is also involved with his Team Corbs.