Corry's late surge gives Woodward World Cup nudge

England forward makes first start at Twickenham against France today with more than just victory in mind
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The Independent Online

Unless he has his wits about him, Martin Corry might well embarrass himself rotten at Twickenham this afternoon by leaving the pitch the moment the anthems are over. A creature of habit, he has done precisely this on a dozen occasions over the last five years - a quick singalong and then away to the bench for a nice sit-down. Just this once, though, he is under orders to stay put and play rugby rather than push off and watch it. He will feel thoroughly disorientated, the poor petal.

Corry has won 27 caps for his country, the first under Jack Rowell in Buenos Aires in 1997, the last of them under Clive Woodward - and under the French cosh, too - in Marseille seven days ago. He has started Tests against Wales in Cardiff and Ireland in Dublin, against a world-class Wallaby vintage at Stadium Australia and the rough-neck Canadians at Fletcher's Field. He has been first pick for the Lions, most notably at the Gabba in Brisbane a couple of years back when he played the game of his life. There is, however, one thing he has not quite managed. He has never started an international match where England feel most at home, in south-west London.

He would not be starting against Raphael Ibanez and company this afternoon either, but for the minor injuries hampering Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley in the final run-up to the World Cup. But Corry is not remotely picky when it comes to his very occasional breaks at Test level - without being unkind, he has spent his international career among the beggars rather than the choosers - and will see this opportunity for what it is: a one-off, last-gasp, 11th-hour, 80-minute chance to turn Woodward's head, with a flight ticket to Australia as the star prize.

The fact that the coach is still agonising over the exact nature of his 30-strong squad has more than a little to do with the 29-year-old Midlander, who relishes the challenge of finishing in front after starting behind everyone else.

"I have my ideal model in terms of the positional balance," Woodward said this week, "but models are broken up by people's form." It was a revealing comment, and it referred principally to Corry, who played an absolute belter in adversity in the sweat-pit of southern France last week. Until that game, it was a pound to a penny that Dallaglio, Worsley, Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lewis Moody would fly to Perth for next month's serious business. And now? Anyone's guess.

Corry has a proven track record in Australia, having made the most of his talents when called on by the Lions in 2001. He is a top bloke to have on your side when the fur begins to fly. "I can't pretend I don't enjoy my rugby just that little bit more when there's some niggle around," he admitted this week. "It's nice to have some extra spice in the game. It means you can really get stuck in." But his rival back-rowers are quality acts to a man, and catch the eye with greater frequency. Does he agree that he is closer than ever before to breaking into the England big-time?

"You're asking me to predict how Clive is thinking, and I can't do that," he said. "I have no control whatsoever over what goes on in his mind. How do I cope with the suspense? Easy. I don't think about it. If I spent my time worrying about how many loose forwards were going to the World Cup and fretting about how well the competition was playing, it would have a negative effect on my own performance. And I can't afford that, can I? I'm a fringe player, and as such I have to prove myself over and over again.

"Let's not waste time on bullshit. We can all spot the players who are World Cup certainties, and we can all spot the rest. I'm among the rest, fighting for one of the remaining places. It's hugely competitive wherever you look and there are marginal calls all over. Look at the people who have gone already. When Clive cut eight guys from the squad earlier this week, the automatic reaction was: 'God, there couldn't have been much in that.' Yes, I'll be disappointed if I don't make it to Australia. But I'd have been more disappointed if I'd played like a drain in these warm-up matches or, worse still, not have been given the opportunity to play at all."

Events might easily have unfolded that way. Eight months ago, when the 2003 Six Nations' Championship was the main event, Corry was on the bench for England's second-string A team. Consistent performances for Leicester - there is no more dependable, what-you-see-is-what-you-get No 8 in Premiership rugby - did not seem to count for much in the grand scheme of things.

Yet he kept on keeping on, making the hard yards and taking the hard tackles, cementing the bricks together in the uncomplicated, abrasive and generally under-appreciated style he has employed since establishing a presence in the first-class game with Newcastle in the closing years of the amateur era.

"I certainly didn't feel I was in World Cup contention back then, so yes, I'm well pleased with the way things have gone since February," he said. "But at the same time, I hadn't resigned myself to missing out. I've been up and down, in and out with England for years now, but in a perverse kind of way, it's how I like it. I never once thought, 'That's my lot, I won't get picked by England again', because it's not me. I love the challenge of making up lost ground, of forcing my way back into consideration. It's the game, isn't it? It's what I do."

According to Corry, who can do a turn in the second row as well as on the blind-side flank and at No 8, Woodward is sticking rigidly to his "specialists only" dictum. "Clive has told me that I'm being viewed as a back-row player, pure and simple," he confirmed. "I'm not being considered as a lock, as far as I know." But the positional arithmetic is so complex - Fermat's Last Theorem is a pushover compared to the torment of identifying a World Cup 30 - that it is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that Corry will travel at the expense of a full-time second row forward.

Should he make himself undroppable by delivering another top-drawer display today, Woodward might find it easier to take all six loose forwards rather than shelve Worsley or Moody.

At least the training-field rivalry, a real blood-and-guts business, is a thing of the past. "There has been a huge intensity about the sessions this summer, for obvious reasons," Corry acknowledged. "The coaches take everything into account, so people are always out to impress. But look, I train and play with Lewis Moody and Neil Back every week of the season; they are friends and colleagues, part of the Leicester family. It doesn't piss me off that Lewis is doing his best to get ahead of me, and it doesn't worry him that I'm trying to achieve something similar.

"In the end, the big decisions are not down to either of us, and besides, you can't fall out with people on whom you might find yourself depending this time next month. We do our jobs, we get along and we keep our thoughts to ourselves. I don't let anyone know what I'm thinking when it comes to World Cup selection, with the single exception of my wife. She's had to bear the brunt of it while we've been in camp."

Come tomorrow lunchtime, the choices will have been made. Mrs Corry's next phone call from her husband will be informative indeed.