Martin Corry: 'Rugby has a way of putting you straight'

Chris Hewett talks to a man whose leadership skills may soon rival those of the legendary Martin Johnson
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The Independent Online

On the basis of the evidence presented on the outskirts of Swansea last Sunday, there are precious few situations that reduce Martin Corry to a feeling of helplessness. A dozen points to the bad in a highly significant Heineken Cup match, trapped on his own line with two of his Leicester colleagues serving time in the sin bin, the clock ticking down, the crowd on his back, the referee's patience evaporating by the second ... all things considered, things looked a trifle bleak. What did Corry do? He played the honesty card, successfully persuaded the remnants of his team that their position was not quite as wretched as it seemed and coaxed them to a victory that may just be the making of their season.

If he carries on like this, he will run a very serious risk of seeing his leadership skills compared with those of his predecessor at both club and international levels, Mr Martin Osborne Johnson of Welford Road and the world. This would corpse him, but he has only himself to blame.

As Leon Lloyd, the Leicester wing, said after the win over the Ospreys: "People hold Johnno in massive esteem and rightly so, but this bloke delivers the same things for us. Did you see him out there when we were really up against it? He went round everyone, giving them an encouraging smack on the arse and telling them that the game was still there to be won. He called it absolutely right, as he usually does."

Yet when Andy Robinson, the England coach, phoned Corry last spring to offer him the national captaincy as a consequence of Jason Robinson's injury problems, he found the No 8 in circumstances that might euphemistically be described as challenging. "I was in the car, driving my wife to the annual Leicester ladies' night," he recalled. "Every year, the wives and girlfriends get together for a boozy session, with the players acting as wine waiters. It's the worst night of the year as far as I'm concerned; I tend to feel comfortable only in environments I can handle, and being at the beck and call of God knows how many women is not one of them.

"Andy's call made the evening a lot easier to bear, I have to admit. He said he'd give me the night to think about his offer, but I'd made up my mind before he finished speaking. I told him that while he could have my answer in the morning if that was what he wanted, it wouldn't be any different from the one I could give him straight away. I didn't see it as anything more than a short-term appointment, because despite our losing three Six Nations games on the run, Jason had done so many things right. Certainly, I had no intention of shouting the odds and changing everything round. In the event, Jason retired and I'm still here."

Corry, so self-deprecating that he would make a Franciscan monk seem narcissistic, does not for the life of him see anything particularly complicated in this captaincy lark. "It's a simple matter of making sure everyone knows what he's supposed to be doing, and then letting them do it," he remarked, dismissively. "After that, it's about maintaining your own standards, which is the most effective way of winning the confidence of those around you. It's obvious to me that you can't have a captain the majority of the dressing-room think is a tosser. How can you stand up and say your piece in a team meeting if you're playing like a fairy every weekend? Your performance carries the weight of everything. That's all you need to remember, basically."

In the nine months since Andy Robinson anointed him, however, the business of leadership has been rather more demanding than Corry lets on. He travelled to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions as one of Brian O'Driscoll's senior lieutenants, which was fine, and led the tourists in their early match against Taranaki in New Plymouth, which was even better. (When he took the field at the head of his side, he forgot to take the daft cuddly lion with him. Corry was suitably embarrassed; everyone else considered it the best move of the trip). When the real rugby kicked in, though, he fell victim to the frailties of others and lost his starting place in the élite team to Simon Easterby of Ireland and Ryan Jones of Wales.

He was in decent company - Jason Robinson also found himself affected by the fall-out from the calamitous Test defeat in Christchurch and joined him among the dirt-trackers for the "nothing" game against the semi-professionals of Manawatu in Palmerston North - and his public response was as selfless and honourable as usual. But Corry was hurting, and hurting badly. Having tasted the high life with the Lions in Australia four years previously, he was now being force-fed something unpalatable.

"I was," he agreed, "thoroughly pissed off. There I was, stuck in a stuffy little room in Palmerston North straight after training, answering questions about how I felt. I can't say it was great. To make matters worse, Jason made it perfectly clear to everyone that he wouldn't be talking, so people looked to me for all the answers. But what do you do? If you can't face up to reality in this game, you're on a long road. Without wanting to be too noble about it, you have to get on with it. Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you wet your face. That sums it up, really.

"What helped more than anything was the motivation provided by the midweek coaches, people like Ian McGeechan and Gareth Jenkins. Their enthusiasm was tremendous. You couldn't help being carried along by it."

There were further upheavals ahead. Corry may not have realised it at the time, but when, in the last week of that benighted tour, he expressed his intention to return to training within three weeks and play in the early fixtures of the Premiership campaign, he was setting himself up as the central figure in the club-country row over the flouting of the 11-week rest agreement - a severing of relations that provoked the most grievous political squabble in English rugby since the leading clubs boycotted the Heineken Cup in 1998-99. By turning out for Leicester in the Midlands derby against Northampton on 3 September, the senior player in the country applied a naked flame to the red-rose touchpaper.

"Of course, I was aware of the argument over the rest period," he acknowledged. "But I didn't get embroiled in it to any great extent, because other people were having the discussions that mattered. I had just two conversations: with Pat [Howard, the Leicester coach] and with Andy. I trust and respect both of them, so I didn't find it awkward. Pat told me how he wanted it to be, how he saw my season panning out; Andy disagreed with Pat, but he listened to what I had to say about my own position. I told him I would have my 11 weeks of rest in time for the autumn internationals, but not in one big chunk. It didn't stop me sleeping at night.

"Why wouldn't I have wanted to play against Northampton? We had eight players on the Lions tour, they had one. Had we rested everyone, we'd have played with half a side in front of a full house. Ultimately, it's not for me to argue the point. There will have to be a compromise somewhere, and the sooner the two sides reach it, the better it will be for all of us. Nobody will get a 10 out of 10 result on this issue, so let's have an agreement. Until one is reached, my stand will stay the same."

But for the fact of Corry's profound level-headedness and deep understanding of his own limitations, the events of the last 12 months, positive and negative, would have knocked him apex over base. Eight and a half years after his England debut, against Argentina in Buenos Aires while the Lawrence Dallaglios and Richard Hills were on Lions duty in Springbok country, he has only recently celebrated the first anniversary of his accession to first-choice status. Between early 1999 and the middle of 2002, he won 20 caps, all but three of them off the bench. In his case, international rugby did not bestow its favours readily. As a result, he sees things for what they are.

He could not, however, resist a brief romantic interlude before leading the world champions for the first time, against Italy in March. "You know in advance that it will be a huge moment, captaining your country after all the years of sweat and blood," he said. "Having accepted Andy's invitation, I didn't go round thinking, 'Bloody hell, I've made it at last'. That isn't me at all. But I did promise myself just one quiet moment in the Twickenham tunnel prior to running out, a moment to savour the thing I was about to do. Those five or six seconds were the highlight of my career, I think, and the thing I best remember about them is the fact that a couple of my Leicester colleagues, Ben Kay and Graham Rowntree, were there for me. Their support meant everything.

"There again, it's important not to dwell on the highlights, because rugby has a way of putting you straight. If I look back over the last year, I would love the chance to play three games again. The first is the Premiership final against Wasps, the second is the Christchurch Test against New Zealand, and the third is last month's game with the All Blacks at Twickenham.

"There were other knock-backs: I think the lowest point was Leicester's defeat by Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-final, because I was banned at the time and there is no worse feeling than sitting there in the stand, feeling you've let people down. But those three matches were pretty painful experiences and I'd give anything to revisit them and do a couple of things differently.

"In the Premiership final, we didn't perform at all. We fell into the trap of looking back at our last league game against Wasps, when we put 40-odd points past them at home. We'd had a fortnight off after that, though, and it can be bloody difficult to get back up for rugby on this scale once you've come down. We were also pretty tired, but even so, that game would be an easy fix for us. I can't say the same about Christchurch because we struggled in most departments, but in retrospect, there were things we could and should have done. And last month? We were close to beating New Zealand that day, and getting that close makes you desperate for another shot.

"We're not the finished article as an international side - if I'm honest, we haven't done justice to the crown we won in 2003. I'm not the finished article as captain, either. But I have a very strong feeling that the worst is behind us, that losing those three games in last season's Six Nations was as low as we'll go. When Andy phoned me that evening and offered me the captaincy, I instantly thought: 'This is a side that excites me. I want to be a part of whatever is going on.' We have a group of players who will, come the next World Cup in 2007, be experienced international performers. Are we on the right lines? Yes, I believe we are."

Forty caps into his Test calling, Corry is beginning to mean as much to England as Lawrence Dallaglio meant during his long tour of duty as the red-rose No 8, and it is a sure sign of his growing influence that Dallaglio's stated desire to return to international colours has not had the coaches busting a gut to secure his services before he changes his mind. Dallaglio is a wonderful player, but, at 33, he is a lion in winter. Corry may be only 14 months his junior, but he is a Leicester Tiger in high summer.