How the worm turns, and turns again. This time last year, Martin Corry was captain of his country and had no reason to think his status would change any time soon. The previous few months had not exactly been a barrel of laughs: England had lost their way in the Six Nations Championship and ended up in the middle of nowhere; the coach, Andy Robinson, had recalled a certain Lawrence Dallaglio to the squad, thereby setting in motion a chain of events that would have tested the patience of a saint, which Corry patently was not. But the Leicester forward had come through it in characteristic style: chin up, chest out, bloodied but unbowed.
Or thought he had. By Christmas, he was out of a job. Not out of the team – as the most dependable player in the side, he was indispensable – but out of office, demoted to the ranks by Brian Ashton, the new head coach, whose first act was to hand the leadership duties to Phil Vickery. By April, Dallaglio, his great rival, was playing some vintage rugby for Wasps and threatening to drive Corry out of his familiar back-row habitat and into the boilerhouse of the second row for good. And by last weekend, one of them had high-tailed it into the World Cup starting line-up for the meeting with the United States in Lens while the other was to be found slumming it on the bench. The "other" was Corry.
But things move quickly, especially in a World Cup environment – and even more especially when England mess up as they did against the Americans. This evening, when the champions take on South Africa in what promises to be the most combustible match of the entire pool stage, Corry is back among the loose forwards – and as captain, to boot – while Dallaglio is back in the stand. He knows as much as any of his peers about the twists and turns of selectorial fate – 18 of his first 25 international appearances were as a replacement, since when he has won 30 of 33 caps from positions in the starting combination – and understands the value of patience.
Could this be his moment? It is Corry's third World Cup, yet only once before has he been involved in a match from the kick-off. (And that game, a 100-pointer against Uruguay in 2003, was hardly a match at all). "It has to be our moment, not my moment," he said. "We have to ensure that in terms of emotion, we are exactly where we need to be to win this game, which is such an important one for England. We have to strike the balance between being cool-headed and being right up there." Will there be a wall-bashing, plate-throwing, cat-kicking atmosphere beforehand – what Will Greenwood, that most knowing of centres, describes as an "old-school dressing room"? A slight grin appeared on Corry's beaten-up face. A grin that said: "Of course. What else would you expect?"
It is no exaggeration to suggest that Corry will be the most important member of the holders' team in St-Denis tonight. To begin with, he will play a significant role at the line-out, which happens to be one of the Springboks' strengths. The England line-out has been anything but a strength of late. In Marseilles last month, it was shambolic. In Lens last weekend, it was a whole lot worse. The Boks have Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and that 24-carat genius of a middle jumper, Victor Matfield. England have Ben Kay, who is not quite the player he was in 2003, and Simon Shaw, whose aerial work tends not to be as impressive as his contribution on terra firma. One of Corry's principal tasks is to stop the green-and-gold forwards helping themselves to red-rose ball.
More than that, though, he has been picked to set a tone. Let us not beat about the bush here: if the England forwards lose the "shit fight", as modern-day players politely describe the contest at the collision point, they will lose the match. End of. Against the US, the likes of Dallaglio and Joe Worsley were too amenable by half, hence their abrupt disappearance from the front line. Corry has been picked to set the terms of engagement. Once Dallaglio had been dropped, there really was no one else. England have more than their fair share of big forwards, but big does not always mean brutal. Shaw and Kay, Andrew Sheridan and Matt Stevens, young Tom Rees... there are precious few "whatever it takes" merchants among that lot. Over to you then, Martin.
"Harsh words needed to be spoken after the USA game, and they've been said," he revealed. "We've had the rollickings. Against the States, we let ourselves down, let the supporters down, let the country down. But that side of the process is over now. There's no point taking negative baggage from Lens into this one against the Boks; instead, we have to think positively.
"If the match against the States had to happen to make us realise where we've been going wrong, all well and good. We know that if we play to our level, we can beat this South African side. We also know that while there has been little in the way of consistency about our rugby, we haven't been serving up complete dross over the last few months. In parts, we've played some good stuff. It goes without saying that the Springboks are a phenomenal rugby team. You always know what you're likely to get from them because they approach the basics of the game in the same way year after year, generation by generation. Fundamentally, they are a route-one side. Yet they've added something to their act recently. They still do the things they always do, but they've developed something extra. That makes them really dangerous.
"But I go into every England game with confidence, with the belief that our best performance is just around the corner. If there is a difference this time, it's in the knowledge that we have to bring out that best performance – that 20 minutes of good rugby won't be anywhere near enough. We're talking about 80 minutes, 85 minutes, 90 minutes... the whole game, with no let-up. We've had our meetings and discussions about last weekend. Now, it's down to each individual to get himself absolutely right emotionally."
Corry is far too much of a diplomat to express pleasure at overhauling Dallaglio at this most crucial of moments, but if he delivers his A-game for his country tonight, part of the motivation will surely be derived from the latest transformation in selectorial fortune. The early part of his stint as England captain, which began when Jason Robinson suffered injury problems three-fifths of the way through the 2005 Six Nations Championship, was wholly enjoyable, but when Andy Robinson, the coach, recalled Dallaglio to the squad for the 2006 tournament, life became more of a trial.
The former captain did not start a match, but his presence cast a long shadow. One of England's few "celebrity" players, he quickly found himself the subject of a media campaign that pressed for his inclusion in the starting line-up. The longer Robinson kept faith with Corry, the faster the Dallaglio bandwagon rolled. When the former was replaced by the latter during the unexpected defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield, the clamour for a more permanent switch increased in volume, from loud to deafening. Every time Corry appeared at a pre-match press conference, he was asked about Dallaglio. By the end of the championship, he was heartily sick of the whole thing.
He is nothing like so careworn now, much to England's relief. Corry's performances in the second row at the back end of last season's Six Nations were of a very high quality, and if Simon Shaw's resurgence has put the squeeze on him in that twilit area of the scrum, England's problems in striking the right balance in the back row have reopened a door. Tonight, he will play at blind-side flanker, the role he performed to such dramatic effect when the Lions swamped the Wallabies in Brisbane six years ago. Perversely, he was dropped after that game. The result? An Australian victory. As a general rule, Corry appears to do his job better than the selectors do theirs.
Will the line-out be decisive tonight, as most people anticipate? And if so, can England even hope to compete, given the fragility of their operation on the two most recent outings? "We've studied it and we've worked on it," he said. "As with everything that went wrong against the United States, we understand the things we must do to put it right."
And the loss of the two playmakers, Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley, to injury? Is it really possible that England will rise above it? "The situation isn't ideal, but then, you can always look around you and find something that isn't ideal," he responded. "Come Saturday morning, no one will look back and make excuses for us. We have to get on with it. There's a Test match to win."Reuse content