Martin Corry: Roaring Tiger

In an age of competing interests, Martin Corry's appetite for the game remains as fierce as ever
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The Independent Online

And who should find himself at the centre of this latest exercise in self-flagellation? Why, none other than Martin Corry, the captain of both Leicester and England - a dual role that begs the question of whether, and to what degree, a high-calibre international can serve two masters in this age of competing oval-ball interests.

Late last week, Corry pitched up in one of the less seductive districts of the capital city - Park Royal, to be precise - to discuss the prospects for the new domestic campaign, which begins with an intriguing set-to between Sale and Newcastle before a capacity audience at Edgeley Park on Friday night. He looked lean and pristine and full of the joys of late summer, but the moment he parked himself on a chair he found himself fielding awkward questions on his own prospects vis-à-vis his club's derby with Northampton on Saturday afternoon.

Corry is not one of life's flannellers; generally speaking, he thinks carefully before saying a word and then says what he thinks. It is, then, reasonable to suggest that his complete befuddlement over the team selection for this weekend and whether or not he is permitted to be a part of it was as genuine as could be. Eight days before the start of a 22-match championship programme, one of the more thoughtful and articulate practitioners of the cauliflower-faced profession did not have the foggiest where he stood.

"I haven't had a two-month pre-season, which would have put me in peak condition," he admitted. "Because of the Lions tour, I've been training for a little over three weeks, which leaves me a touch short in terms of fitness. But it's manageable, I can assure you. How do I feel? Good. Do I want to play in the opening match? Against Northampton, in front of a full house at Welford Road? Of course I want to play, and if Pat Howard [the Tigers' new head coach] says I'm playing, then I'm playing.

"Look, I have to be careful what I say here. The England coaches' take on this is that players who toured in the summer should have a clear 11 weeks before resuming, but these things tend not to be completely clear-cut. You might argue that my last proper piece of action was in the Lions' midweek match against Manawatu, the best part of two weeks before the end of the trip. In the subsequent matches, I played less than a half of rugby if I played at all, and under the agreed terms and conditions, anything under 40 minutes does not count as an appearance.

"When you come down to it, I'm a player. This is what I do. Pat has played international rugby and he knows his stuff. If we were talking about Lions players being flogged every day in training and then being forced to play on the first weekend, I'd have my reservations. Speaking personally, though, I'm not being flogged. At Leicester, we take the whole welfare thing very seriously, and if any coach understands the importance of doing his best for the players, that coach is Pat."

Andy Robinson, the England coach, has not pointed specifically to Corry in pressing for adherence to the 11-week agreement, if indeed it is an agreement. This is probably as well, for no one in possession of a full set of marbles would choose the imperishable Corry to illustrate the perils of burn-out. The captain may have played an awful lot of rugby during those seven benighted weeks in New Zealand - indeed, he was the only member of the Red Army-sized squad to feature in eight of the 11 matches - but for all the bashings and bruisings and buffetings he sustained, he never once cried foul. He certainly did not declare himself unavailable on the grounds of "general fatigue", as did the Irish centre Gordon D'Arcy, to his eternal shame.

Which is not to say he did not enjoy a break from the rigours once the Lions had been blackwashed by the silver-ferned brigade. "I went on a fortnight's holiday straight after the tour, but sent my trainers back in freight, just so I wouldn't be tempted to go for a run or two," he recalled. "That time away gave me the chance to get the emotion out of my system and rationalise what had happened to me personally, and to the Lions squad collectively, in New Zealand. Now, I look back on it in the knowledge that I learnt more in those few weeks than on any tour in which I'd previously been involved. It changed my view on rugby, on ways of getting the best from people. Sometimes, you take more from negatives than from positives. That trip was a classic example."

So it is a fresh, revitalised, characteristically eager but increasingly clued-in Corry who will lead England in the autumn internationals against New Zealand, Australia and Samoa and, taking first things first, guide Leicester through the opening salvoes of the Premiership. The early games are demanding indeed: neighbours Northampton, followed by a visit to Wasps, an ultra-physical confrontation with Bath and a trip to Headingley, where the Midlanders have a long and frustrating tradition of inventing new ways of losing. And all this without two World Cup-winning forwards in Martin Johnson and Neil Back, who are now deep into pipe-and-slippers mode.

"How do we replace someone like Martin? Well, Martin was unique, as was Neil, so it's a question of moving on rather than attempting to recapture the qualities they possessed," Corry said. "The biggest problem for people outside the Leicester environment is understanding the importance of not trying to recreate what has been and gone. We don't have Martin or Neil, and we don't have John Wells [the popular and resourceful coach, who has opted for a less pressurised life within the Rugby Football Union's national academy]. That is an unalterable fact. The thing now is to say, 'This is us, how are we going to do things?' rather than tread water thinking about those who used to be here.

"Yes, Martin has retired. But when I look at the squad we currently have, I'm happy that I have sufficient experience and enough natural leaders around me to ensure that Leicester are contenders on every front. Graham Rowntree, Ben Kay, Daryl Gibson - these are people prepared to take responsibility, to put their heads above the parapet. I'm not joking when I include someone like Austin Healey in that number, either. Austin has a big contribution to make this season."

Like the mighty Johnson before him, Corry will measure Leicester's season in trophies won, and as they won precisely none last time out, despite playing the rugby of the gods for much of the campaign, the only way is up. If that last statement seems just a trifle odd, given the Midlanders' record over the first decade of professional union, the captain very definitely sees things in those stark terms.

"We judge ourselves on titles," he confirmed, "and while we turned in some terrific performances last season - against Wasps in the two Heineken Cup pool games, against Newcastle in the Premiership - we're not the sort of club to hang our coats on those kinds of matches. All those victories do is put you in a position to go on and win something, and that last bit is what we failed to do. When it came to the Heineken [Cup] semi-final against Toulouse and the Premiership final against Wasps, we finished second.

"Was that down to the quality of the opposition, or to the way we played? At Leicester, we take the view that it was 100 per cent down to us underperforming. We go into games knowing that if we play well, we can beat any side we come up against. That, therefore, is our target. It's unrealistic to play at the optimum in every match, of course, but all the same..."

Unusually, Corry did not complete his sentence. There again, there was no need for him to do so. On this subject, at least, there was no confusion.