Being a trouper of the front rank, Martin Corry did his level best yesterday to make a joke of this never-ending Lawrence Dallaglio business. "I said to Lawrence that as things appear to have calmed down a bit, we should mock up a scrap and liven them up again," he remarked. England's captain could not hide behind his irony, though. For the first time since his great rival reappeared in the Test squad at the start of the Six Nations Championship, Corry let slip the mask and betrayed the depth of his exasperation with a debate that is fast becoming a damaging distraction.
Indeed, Corry seemed more downbeat and careworn than at any point since he succeeded Jason Robinson as captain this time last year. Not only is he feeling the malign effects of a playing programme bordering on the crackpot - the Six Nations games at Murrayfield 12 days ago and in Paris this coming Sunday being separated by the small matter of a Powergen Cup semi-final - but is now trying to operate under the dead weight of the union game's equivalent of personality politics.
Dallaglio has every right to push for the starting place in the middle of the England back row; indeed, the celebrated Wasps captain would not be the sportsman we know him to be if he did otherwise. The problem for the red rose hierarchy in general, and for Corry in particular, is that in the media-driven public imagination, Dallaglio's reputation overshadows that of the rest of the forward pack combined.
The clamour for an immediate change at No 8 may not have a grounding in logic, or even be remotely fair. Unfortunately for Corry, logic and fairness often finish a poor second to the forces of fame.
It is no simple matter to tackle the French in their own capital at the best of times. At the worst of times, it is well nigh impossible. The decision of the England coach, Andy Robinson, to replace Corry with Dallaglio for the last quarter of the Calcutta Cup match added an entire refinery's worth of petrol to the flames of the No 8 issue, and things were not made any easier when Leicester, led by Corry, were beaten by Wasps, led by Dallaglio, at the Millennium Stadium last Saturday. Unusually, Corry did not attend the after-match formalities. Yesterday, he explained why.
"I was hugely frustrated," he admitted. "There were a lot of factors involved, a lot going on, and I was intensely disappointed. Has the thing with Lawrence had an effect on me? It's become one of the elementary reasons why I don't read the papers. There's nothing wrong with healthy debate, and I've said countless times that I'm happy with what is happening inside the England camp. I'm just amazed this has gone on so long."
Corry discussed his position with Robinson on Monday and emerged reassured. "I had no qualms with the substitution at Murrayfield," he continued. "Andy makes the calls, and he felt fresh legs were needed. Lawrence is one hell of an impact player to bring off the bench, after all. But the coach has also said that I'm captain for the tournament. He's a man of his word and without wishing to sound arrogant, I trust him on that. Let's cut the crap: everyone wants to play their best rugby, and do it for 80 minutes. If it's not happening, coaches are there to make changes. I support that 100 per cent."
Under the circumstances, this weekend's match amounts to an extreme test of Corry's mettle. "The fear factor will play a part," he conceded, "but that's fine, because you need some of that in your belly. I think we fear France more than any side in the championship because they pose threats all over the field. They can open up in their own 22, they are electrifying with turnover ball and they pride themselves on their scrum. Wherever you look, the challenges are there."
Florian Fritz, such an important figure in the French midfield in the absence of the injured Yannick Jauzion, has recovered from a knee injury and will start the game. So too will the recalled scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili, who won the corresponding contest last season with a wonderful display of goal-kicking, and the Stade Français prop Sylvain Marconnet, who replaces Olivier Milloud of Bourgoin on the loose-head side of the scrum.
l Newcastle's Toby Flood will play his first England Under-21 game of the season in Saturday's game against France. Northampton's Alex Rae takes over from Harlequins' Chris Robshaw, who broke his leg last week.Reuse content