Alex Corbisiero will make an unexpected England debut against Italy, the land of his forefathers, at Twickenham today after Andrew Sheridan was ruled out with a back injury.
The 22-year-old loose-head prop, whose grandfather emigrated from Naples to New York in the 1950s, had been preparing to play for London Irish against Newcastle this weekend.
But when Sheridan damaged his back in training, England manager Martin Johnson opted to promote the uncapped Corbisiero straight into his starting XV and leave David Wilson on the bench.
Corbisiero will pack down alongside Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole in a front row boasting just 36 caps and an average age of 23, believed to be England’s youngest starting unit. Opposite them will be the gnarled Italian trio of Salvatore Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Martin Castrogiovanni, who have 181 caps between them.
Corbisiero will be the second England debutant in as many weeks after Northampton flanker Tom Wood performed impressively in the 26-19 victory over Wales eight days ago.
Johnson had no qualms about pitching Corbisiero straight into battle with the Italians and their fearsome Leicester tight-head Castrogiovanni. “We think Alex is a solid character. We like solid characters. If you haven’t got the character you can’t go and play out there,” Johnson said.
“That is what you need to be a Test player. It is whether they can handle the pressure and the physicality.
“I have been impressed with Alex whenever he has come in for training. He is a good guy. He is very humble but also very keen and he wants to work hard. I have been impressed with him as a bloke.
“We have no qualms putting him in there at loose-head and starting. David covers loose-head from the bench but Alex has more experience there. He has played in the Premiership for a few years now. He is fit, he is strong, he is keen and sharp. He understands the game and his role in it.
“We are excited to have him in the side. We felt like we found a Test quality player last week (in Wood) and hopefully we will find one (today).”
Corbisiero was born in New York, where his uncle Tony still runs the family catering business in Queens, before moving to England shortly before his fifth birthday.
At 6ft 1ins and over 18st, Corbisiero is part of a new generation of mobile prop forwards – along with the likes of Joe Marler and Matt Mullan – coming through England’s ranks.
He was a member of the England Under-20 squad that won the Grand Slam in 2008, broke into the London Irish team the following year and has been on Johnson’s radar ever since.
Corbisiero played for the Saxons over the last two weekends and, having trained with England earlier this week, he had been expecting a Premiership game this weekend.
Corbisiero’s inclusion is the only change to their starting XV that England have made from that victory over Wales, their first in Cardiff since 2003.
Last week, Ireland required a last-gasp drop goal to snatch a 13-11 win in Rome over Italy and England struggled to a 17-12 win there last year.