Corry's class creates headache for Henry

Queensland Reds 8 Lions 42
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Your rugby starter for 10: what single item does a Lions selector least need in an embarrassment of riches situation, when five loose forwards are operating at the peak of their many and varied powers and a sixth, the most potent of all, is preparing to join the party after six weeks of restful inactivity? Answer: a seventh loose forward playing out of his armadillo-like skin. To borrow from the colourful phraseology of Graham Henry, the head coach, Martin Corry wants the selectors to understand that they "stuffed up" by omitting him from their original party. Suffice to say the sage and onion is beginning to fly.

Corry, the Leicester No 8 summoned from England's low-intensity tour of North America to replace the injured Scot Simon Taylor in the big boys' league, has played two full games since materialising in Townsville eight days ago. In the first of them, against a mix-and-match Queensland President's XV, he took a while to shake off the deleterious effects of umpteen airline meals and wisely decided to concentrate on the most basic elements of his bump-and-grind game. In the second, against the real Queensland at Ballymore on Saturday, he made more big statements in 80 minutes than Cicero managed in a lifetime. As a result, Henry has back row permutations coming out of his ears.

It would be stretching a point to suggest that Corry, still frustrated on the England front by the Hill-Back-Dallaglio axis that seems to have been in place since the time of Noah, has claimed pole position in the race for Test honours against the Wallabies. A confirmed realist, albeit one who defends his right to gaze at the stars, Corry is well aware of the scale of the challenge confronting him. "The standard here is unbelievably high," he agreed after the Lions' record victory over the Reds. But he is in there pitching, for sure, and if Lawrence Dallaglio fails to stack up over the next few days, the No 8 berth will lie between the Johnny-come-lately and Scott Quinnell.

"How did I feel when they left me out of the initial squad? Shattered. Absolutely gutted," Corry admitted. "Andy Robinson [the England forwards coach and Henry's assistant on this trip] spent ages trying to get hold of me, and when he eventually gave me the news I just wanted to bring the phone call to an end as quickly as possible. Suddenly, it's all different. The cards have fallen for me, what with the call-up and then Scott's withdrawal from the Queensland match. I want to do the jersey proud, because some legendary players have worn that shirt down the years. That is a massive motivation for me, although in this environment, motivation is hardly a problem."

Less than a fortnight from the opening Test in Brisbane ­ the first watershed fixture in the Lions' attempt to win back-to-back southern hemisphere series for the only the second time since the First World War ­ Henry is discovering that clarification in one position is invariably accompanied by a muddying of the waters in another. On Saturday, Martin Johnson and Danny Grewcock told the coach what he needed to know: that their red rose engine-room partnership, all heat and sweat and heavy industry, is at its most productive. The Wallabies detest the sight of both men, which is why they are likely to pair up in the matches that matter. At the same time, the performances of Corry and Richard Hill undermined one or two popular theories about the ultimate shape of the Lions' loose combination.

Hill, hugely capable in all disciplines, had been the subject of quiet, if surprising, mutterings. The theory went like this: if Dallaglio proved his fitness, Quinnell repeated his Western Australian rampage against stiffer opposition and the management decided that Neil Back was the only man capable of countering the brilliant young Wallaby hunter-gatherer George Smith, then the Saracen would be vulnerable, no matter how well he performed. At Ballymore, Hill delivered in spades by turning over Queensland ball at will, scoring a fine try in first-half injury time and, most importantly, fronting up to the local hard nuts ­ Michael Foley, Mark Connors, Nick Stiles ­ when the lid departed from the pot in the opening quarter.

Corry, meanwhile, contributed directly to Rob Henderson's try on the half-hour by charging down a clearance kick from the ultra-flakey Elton Flatley, and laid the foundation stone for Dafydd James' score after 40 minutes by burying Nathan Sharpe with a full-frontal, "time gentlemen please" tackle that had the Lions followers on their feet. By the break, the tourists were 32-3 to the good and halfway back to the hotel. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that their standards slipped a little in the second period.

Henry was not best pleased with the scrummaging, and rightly so: Phil Vickery, one big item when careering around in the loose, does not always punch his weight in the tight, while Tom Smith is struggling to reproduce the low-slung dynamism that earned him Test caps in Springbok country four years ago. The coach also pointed out that three of his side's five tries were a tad fortunate, resulting as they did from two speculative kicks that turned to gold and one attempted touch-finder that turned bad on the Queenslanders. There again, Brian O'Driscoll's score, three minutes into the second half was a diamond, both in terms of Jonny Wilkinson's approach work and the Irishman's finishing.

Wilkinson and Rob Howley had never partnered each other at half-back, yet they gelled like old muckers from way back when. Once Howley departed the fray with bruised ribs ­ a painful condition, but not tour-threatening ­ much of the fizz disappeared from the Lions effort. For the first 47 minutes, though, the tourists were firing from the hip and hitting every target that presented itself. Austin Healey, irrepressibility made flesh, may yet make a pitch for Howley's scrum-half berth, but the Leicester Lip will have to play mind-bogglingly well in Gosford tomorrow to deny the Welshman the glittering prizes he would, but for injury, have claimed in South Africa in 1997.

When the tour itinerary was confirmed late last year, the assumption was that the Lions would do well to get out of Queensland with two victories. As it turned out, they came within a couple of largely irrelevant minutes of leaving the Sunshine State without conceding a single try. That is some effort. The Wallabies still believe they will prevail in this Test series, but their opponents are nobody's fools.

Queensland: Try Cordingley; Penalty Flatley. Lions: Tries Luger, Henderson, James, Hill, O'Driscoll; Conversions Wilkinson 4; Penalties Wilkinson 3.

QUEENSLAND: M Tabrett; J Pelesasa, D Herbert (capt), S Kefu, D McCallum; E Flatley, S Cordingley; N Stiles, M Foley, G Panoho, M Connors, N Sharpe, M Cockbain, D Croft, T Kefu. Replacements: A Scotney for Flatley, H-T; J Ramsamy for S Kefu, 53; S Hardman for Foley, 64; S Kerr for Stiles 66; M Mitchell for Sharpe, 69; J Roe for Cockbain, 80; B Wakely for Cordingley, 83.

LIONS: I Balshaw (Bath and England); D James (Bridgend and Wales), B O'Driscoll (Leinster and Ireland), R Henderson (Munster and Ireland), D Luger (Harlequins and England); J Wilkinson (Newcastle and England), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); T Smith (Northampton and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), P Vickery (Gloucester and England), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), D Grewcock (Bath and England), R Hill (Saracens and England), N Back (Leicester and England), M Corry (Leicester and England). Replacements: M Dawson (Northampton and England) for Howley, 47; J Robinson (Sale and England) for O'Driscoll, 60; C Charvis (Swansea and Wales) for Back, 77; S Murray (Saracens and Scotland) for Johnson, 83.

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).