Rugby Union: Corry a hit-man at heart

Leicester's imposing No 8 gives Woodward's side a cutting edge while Italians hope for a surprise today
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The Independent Online
MORE and more the talk is of big hits and big dee-fence. The Americanisation of professional rugby is slowly seeping into the consciousness and although the twain shall never meet, union and gridiron are not complete strangers.

Leicester Tigers may not be England's answer to the Green Bay Packers, but the mentality is not dissimilar. The current England team are modelled on Leicester's pragmatic, well-drilled approach, which helps to explain the emergence of Martin Corry and the resurgence of Neil Back.

Since being sent off against Northampton at Welford Road last season, Corry says he has taken a keener interest in the psychological side of the game. "I wanted to make sure I was sharply focused and in the best possible frame of mind," he said. "It's not just about quality of training and what I eat but about my whole lifestyle. You learn not only to become a better athlete but a better person." It sounds very American.

The competition for back-row places in the England team is intense just now. This time last year Clive Woodward, the coach, favoured the combination of Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Tony Diprose; in the World Cup qualifiers against Holland last Saturday and again today against Italy at the McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield, it is Ben Clarke, Corry and Back. And Tim Rodber is still waiting. Strained knee ligaments have kept Dallaglio on the sidelines, allowing Corry and Back to re-enact their club partnership at international level. Leaving aside the fact that Holland would not have been much of a match for Leicester seconds, Back still scored four of England's 16 tries.

"Martin and I work very well together," Back said. "He has been Leicester's outstanding player to date and we have a much better balanced back row." Considering that Back is so hot at the moment he's almost combustible, this is praise indeed.

Dallaglio's loss has been Leicester's gain, with not only Corry taking over at No 8 but also Martin Johnson the captaincy. Johnson said of Corry: "He has been outstanding, taking the ball on, making yardage and making some great hits in defence." There we go again.

Leicester - seven Tigers faced Italy - have concentrated more on defence this season. Before the defeat against Wasps last week, when Leicester were missing eight regulars, they had conceded 11 tries in 10 matches. The next best is 22 tries.

Back, for one, has benefited from Corry's form. "It's allowed me a freer role in providing a link between the backs and the forwards," Back said. "If I have to get stuck in in the tight I can't do that job as effectively.

"If you analyse the success of teams, whether it be South Africa in the World Cup in 1995 or in the Tri-Nations this year or France in the football World Cup, the common factor is an outstanding defence. It's the key. I have been at Leicester for eight years and this season we have spent more time on defence than in the past seven years. It used to occupy between 10 and 20 per cent of our time. Now it's 50 per cent."

England's base for the World Cup qualifying matches has been the Marriott Hotel in Leeds and although bonding between Corry and Back would seem unnecessary, the two have been room sharing. Corry, 6ft 5in, 17st 8lb, has been around, with spells at Newcastle and Bristol, but he has only just turned 25. When the Lions were in South Africa last year, he won two caps for England in Argentina but then lost his place for the one- off Test against Australia.

By common consent he is playing the best rugby of a career which began 17 years ago with the Tunbridge Wells junior sections. In 1992, delighted of Tunbridge Wells packed alongside Garath Archer in the second row of England's Grand Slam schools team and a few years later both moved to Bristol. As the West Country club went through a series of traumatic changes, Corry decamped to Leicester, for a brief spell under Bob Dwyer who, of course, subsequently took over at Bristol.

"I always have a look at their results," Corry said. "It was very hard leaving Bristol. I was very passionate about the club, but the move was forced upon me." With Dean Richards having rolled his last maul, Leicester were close to getting Corry before he joined Bristol. When he finally arrived at Welford Road he began to wonder if he was in the right place. Eric Miller, the Tigers' Irish Lion, was the No 8.

"I hadn't taken a full part in pre-season training, I wasn't in form and I wasn't comfortable," Corry said. "I was looking over my shoulder as opposed to looking forward. It was time to evaluate everything."

What helped his cause is that not only did Richards, who succeeded the Australian as coach, and Corry have a mutual respect but also that they are both, first and foremost, great team men and it was the loss of a collective spirit which has prevented Leicester from reaching the pinnacle in the last couple of years.

This season it has all fallen into place. Instead of flitting from one position to another, Corry, who used to captain Bristol, has settled at No 8, and it enables him to make his voice heard. "It involves decision making with lots of responsibility," he said.

Today Corry will win his fourth cap in what is likely to be a much more physical test against the Italians. After that it's grudge time against Australia and South Africa at Twickenham, where Dallaglio is expected to rejoin the back row. "In one sense Corry's in because Dallaglio is injured," Woodward said, "but in another very real sense he's in on form. Martin has huge physical presence and he's made it count in recent weeks."

John Mitchell, the England forwards coach and something of a No 8 aficionado, said: "The back-row formula has to complement each other, and Martin Corry has been chosen to make great yardage, take out defenders and get at their midfield." He could almost be talking about a linebacker in American football.