Leader of the pack

Martin Corry's rise to the top, through the fires of adversity, has forged an authority figure
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Over the last nine months or so, Martin Corry has established himself as an England player, made the national captaincy his own - few expect the red rose hierarchy to ignore the lessons of recent history by asking Jonny Wilkinson or Jason Robinson to relieve the Leicester forward of the leadership duties - and made the cut for a Lions tour on merit, rather than by happenstance. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable to assume that Corry regards the 2004-05 campaign as Season Zero and prefers not to think about anything that preceded it.

Yet the events of June 2001, at The Gabba in Brisbane, refuse to be erased from the memory bank. Indeed, they remain as alive for him today as they did on the morning after the night before, when, having consumed untold quantities of celebratory beer, Corry cast his mind over one of the great performances in Lions history.

Summoned from England's second-string tour of North America as a replacement for the injured Simon Taylor - the same Simon Taylor who was invalided out of this trip a little over a week ago - he persuaded the selectors to include him in their side for the first Test against the Wallabies and repaid the debt by contributing handsomely to a victory of mythic proportions.

"The thing I most remember is fighting my way through the red shirts and flags just to get on to the pitch," he recalled, after being named as vice-captain for tomorrow's mighty set-to with the All Blacks. "I don't know if I'll ever see the like of it again. The stadium was three-quarters full of people wearing Lions gear. It was my first game of that magnitude and I was in total awe. Now, it was understandable that someone of my experience should be overwhelmed, but I saw Keith Wood, the great Irish hooker and a hardened Test forward, just standing there, staring at the scene with the colour draining from his face. When I realised a player with his reputation felt every bit as moved as I was feeling, the scale of the occasion really hit home."

He has come a fair way since then has the Birmingham-born No 8, whose Premiership spells with Newcastle and Bristol laid the foundations for a successful shift into the unforgiving but immensely rewarding environment of Welford Road. The road has been neither straight nor fast - Corry was a bench-bunny throughout Sir Clive Woodward's stewardship of the England team, winning 19 caps as a replacement - yet somehow, the circuitous route to the summit has suited him perfectly. His is a game forged in the fires of many furnaces; there have been a dozen injuries, scores of selectorial setbacks, a hundred different frustrations. By rising above them, he has proved once and for all that everything comes to he who waits.

When Lawrence Dallaglio, his predecessor as England No 8, suffered his grotesque ankle injury in the opening match of this tour against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua, there was no doubt among the aficionados as to who would plug the hole. "Corry," they said, in unison, "is the man to step up. He'll have to, or this will be a one-way trip to hell." Of course, he stepped up immediately and has been stepping ever since. Even if his was not a crucially important voice at the start of this adventure - and many considered it to be as important as most - it certainly is now.

"You know, it seems as though Lawrence's injury happened ages ago," he said. "When it happened, all of us on the pitch thought the same thing: 'Christ, this is a bad, bad thing to happen.' It definitely affected us for a while during that game, because we struggled quite badly for 20 minutes or so after he was stretchered away. But we also thought, reasonably quickly: 'OK, it's occurred. These things do. We'll deal with it and move on, because we have no choice.' I'm happy to say we've met that challenge. I believe we have moved on."

Injuries to Wilkinson and Robinson left Corry as England's captain by default, and he led the side in the Six Nations Championship victories over Italy and Scotland. He performed as to the manner born, and the available evidence suggests that the world champions have stumbled upon the perfect answer to a very serious question about leadership in the post-Martin Johnson era. The Lions coaches appear to be of the same opinion, for Corry will take charge of the pack tomorrow.

There is a notion here that Sir Clive Woodward has missed a trick in his loose-forward selection - that he should have picked Corry at blind-side flanker, the position in which he made such an impact against Australia in 2001, rather than at No 8.

There is an undeniable logic to this argument, especially as Ryan Jones, the young Welshman, ripped up an entire forest of trees from the middle of the back row against Otago last weekend. Corry plays most of his rugby at No 8 these days, but his footballing ability is less obviously an asset than his tight-to-the-action discipline and his naked aggression. A genuinely creative sort like Jones - or even the underpowered Michael Owen, whose passing borders on the sublime - might have been the making of the Lions' breakaway unit.

In the final analysis, though, Woodward has chosen on the basis of personalities as much as abilities. Corry is a big personality now, not just in the England environment but on the world stage. There is a candour about him - a simple, uncomplicated let's-get-it-on approach to rugby that strikes a chord with seasoned professionals and fresh-faced juniors alike. Dallaglio, a one-club professional with a reputation that stretches far beyond the boundaries of London town, would have been the conscience of this touring side. In his absence, Corry has taken on the responsibility and made the transition as seamless as humanly possible.

"To have had these honours of leadership heaped upon me over the last few months ... well, it's been tremendous," he said. "But through it all, you learn a very simple lesson. It is vital, absolutely essential, not to let the rewards of the game change you as a person. You have to remember that you're in this position precisely because of who you are. When it comes to talking to players at this level, you have to be heard. If you come over as a fake or a fraud, who in his right mind would listen to a word you say?"

This is a familiar Corry refrain, reflecting the timeless rugby values of honesty, integrity and straightforward plain speaking. There is no artifice to him, no side; he is bullshit-free, as Johnson was before him. Some of his performances since last September could only have been delivered by a man at home in his own skin, armed with a highly developed sense of right and wrong. Heaven knows, he is no angel. But in essence, his is an incorruptible sporting spirit.

"A Lions tour of this country is the ultimate," he acknowledged. "I look back to Australia four years ago, when the Lions scored scored 200 points in their first two games, despite playing pretty poorly for a long period of the second match. That didn't do it for me, quite honestly. When we received the itinerary for this tour, a lot of us looked at the matches and said: 'Hang on just a minute, where are the 100-pointers here?' And of course, they don't exist in New Zealand. The fact that they don't exist means we'll be well prepared for the All Blacks this weekend."

Happily, Corry will have familiar figures around him in the pack. Julian White, Ben Kay, Neil Back . . . all of them are men of Leicester. "It sounds as though I'm toeing the party line, but when you enter the Lions environment, all thoughts of club and country go out of the window," he said. "But when it comes to a game like this, a touch of familiarity does help. I always have a tight role alongside Ben at the line-out, and I know Neil's game off by heart when it comes to his running lines off the set pieces. There are a couple of things with these people I can take as read, and that is always reassuring.

"In this situation, the small things matter. We got a lot of small things right against the Wallabies at The Gabba and as a result, I experienced what was probably the highest point of my career. The following week, we bombed out in Melbourne when we should have won, and then lost the last Test in a really close game. That was the lowest point. The emotions will be extreme this time - even more so, I expect. Believe me, the prospect is exhilarating."