Rugby Union: Ice packs and elbow grease put Corry back in the pack

The hard-working England No 8 will complete a remarkable recovery from a serious and painful injury when he faces the French at Twickenham tomorrow. Chris Hewett reports
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It is not exactly unknown for rugby forwards to rise from their beds every couple of hours, especially if they have just devoted a substantial amount of time to a thoroughgoing examination of the local brew after a notable victory over someone well worth beating, like the Wallabies or the Springboks or, to choose the most obvious example, any team coached by Graham Henry, that high priest of smug superiority. Early last month, Martin Corry found his slumbers interrupted with monotonous regularity. Sadly, his problems had nothing to do with an overenthusiastic raising of the drinking elbow, for the very good reason that his elbow was in two halves.

Leicester's unnerving No 8 - unnerving because his scholarly off-field image jars more than a little with the darkly aggressive air he brings to operations on the paddock - was performing with his customary vigour in a floodlit match at Gloucester when he fell awkwardly on his right arm and dislocated his funny bone, an incident so profoundly unamusing that the Kingsholm Shed, characteristically raucous until that point, fell as silent as a Carmelite friary. When Corry eventually left the pitch, he was softly applauded by the Cherry and White brethren who, as a general rule, eschew human sympathy in all its forms.

"I don't know if it was the worst injury I could possibly have had, but it was certainly the most painful in my experience," admitted Corry, who is no stranger to orthopaedic discomfort. "My first thought, laying there in the Gloucester mud, was: `Whatever else you do, don't squeal.' Had I been caught squealing, I'd have had the mickey taken out of me for the rest of my career. And as I was walking off, a second thought came into my head, which was not to faint and not to throw up. Not in public, at any rate. Of course, once I reached the dressing-room I was like a big girl. I certainly wasn't a martyr on the painkiller front. I took everything I was offered, in bloody big doses."

The word from the medics that night was not terribly optimistic. Six weeks minimum, they said - a recovery period guaranteed to cost their patient his coveted England shirt, which he had worn with honour during the autumn internationals. Those doctors and physios at Kingsholm knew something, for sure. Six weeks virtually to the day, Corry has declared himself fit for duty and been summoned to the front line. The fact that his comeback match is for his country rather than his club, and against the ultra-physical French, says as much about his discipline and determination as it does about his value to the reigning world champions as they seek a route out of the Six Nations cul-de-sac they marched into with eyes wide shut at the Millennium Stadium last weekend.

Corry was typically ho-hum about his successful rehabilitation when he discussed the subject at the England base in Surrey this week. "Everything depends on how you view injuries, which are bound to occur in a game like rugby," he said. "I tend to take it week by week, to ask myself what specific things I can achieve over the forthcoming seven days to get myself fitter than I was during the previous seven. In the first week after the elbow went, I was in no position to do anything at all. But by the second week, I was on the exercise bike, and by the third I was able to run. After that, it was a matter of starting, and then increasing, the weight training. Finally, I was in a position to take on a full fitness test with Phil Pask [the England physio]. The last time I tackled Phil, I was just starting out with Newcastle and he was just finishing with Northampton. It was quite nice, whacking him a few times."

Perfectly simple and straightforward, eh? Not quite. Listen to Simon Kemp, the national team's resident doctor. "Martin has been astonishingly diligent," he said. "We knew that a six-week recovery from this kind of injury was achievable - I'm reliably informed that Dean Richards managed it in four back in the mid-1990s - but in these cases, everything depends on the commitment and application shown by the individual. Martin was exemplary in maximising his chances of an early return to rugby. To give you an example, he would set his alarm to go off every two hours through the night during the early stages of the process, just so he could apply ice to his elbow to reduce the swelling.

"He was fortunate, to a degree. It was an extremely painful injury: the elbow had to be relocated, and there was heavy bleeding and ligament damage, but there were no associated fractures. Because he did everything absolutely right, the swelling settled and the ligaments began to heal fairly quickly, and he was in a position to take a full part in this week's team training, which was the final stage of functional rehabilitation. As far as I can tell, he's fine to play. The elbow could dislocate again, but only if there is a repeat of the problem at Gloucester, with the same degree of force involved. He has not been weakened in any way."

Which is just as well, from England's point of view, for Corry is fast becoming the whetstone of a red rose pack shorn of the Johnsons, Dallaglios and Hills of old. He is not quite as ruthless as Martin Johnson and lacks the astonishing dynamism of Lawrence Dallaglio at his best, but he offers a tight, grafting style of No 8 play worth its weight in any currency you care to mention. Andy Robinson, an unabashed admirer from the moment Corry pitched up in Australia a few days into the 2001 British and Irish Lions tour as a replacement for the stricken Scottish forward Simon Taylor, considers him to be one of the principal movers and shakers of this new forward unit.

"In England terms, Martin was a nearly man for years," said the head coach. "That is a difficult place to be, half in and half out of the side, but he has always possessed the mental toughness to deal with the frustrations of a given situation, to remain focused on his goals and take his opportunities as and when they arise. There is a tremendous confidence about him, some real steel. I'm not sure every player could take six weeks out and come back in against a side as good as France as if nothing had happened, but I think Martin can do it. He's very strong where it matters, in the mind."

As he has had to be, given the supreme quality of his elders and betters among the England back-row fraternity. First decorated as a 23-year-old by Jack Rowell during the two-Test trek to Argentina in 1997, no fewer than 19 of his first 30 international appearances were off the bench. Indeed, all 14 of his caps between the World Cup warm-up victory over Canada in 1999 and the 48-19 demolition of the French during the 2001 Six Nations were as a replacement. And as Corry is the first to point out, replacement equals second best.

But everything comes to he who waits, and when Dallaglio decided that the heavy defeats during last summer's tour of New Zealand and Australia were too much for flesh and blood to stand, Corry sensed a chance of the now-or-never variety. His performance against John Smit's successful Springbok side last November was constructed on the grandest of scales, and if he was slightly less effective against a street-smart Wallaby side seven days later, he was far from outclassed. Had it not been for that damned elbow, his would have been among the first two or three names on the teamsheet for the Wales game.

"I'm an awful watcher of rugby matches at the best of times, so you can imagine how I felt in Cardiff last week, sitting there in the stand with all that going on," he said, with a grimace. "I'm just relieved to be back where I want to be, thinking about the challenge against France and looking forward to really hard, no-nonsense game. It will be tough, obviously. I've always said that my game is built on momentum, which is something I haven't been able to generate recently. There's a certain element of heading into the unknown this weekend, so it's a test of my mental approach as much as my physical state.

"Nothing prepares you for a big match like a run of big matches, so my ideal preparation for playing France this week would have been to have played against the Welsh last week. That didn't happen, so there's a degree of guesswork as to how I'll cope. But I feel optimistic about my prospects. I've been tackling Simon Shaw" - the 6ft 9in, 18st 3lb Wasps lock - "in training all week, and while the French have some big blokes, they don't have anyone bigger than Simon. Do I feel good about myself? Of course I do. I'm playing again, aren't I?"