Martin Corry was a peripheral figure when England won the World Cup in Australia four years ago – a starter in the brutally one-sided catchweight contest against Uruguay, a frustrated observer of the games that mattered – but he has operated at the very heart of red-rose affairs ever since.
If there have been occasions when a less resolute sportsman would have craved a return to life on the margins, Corry has never wavered in his devotion to the cause. Last weekend, in the quarter-final victory over Australia, he delivered a performance so rewarding that he may ultimately come to regard it as a gift to himself.
Much has been said and written about the manner of the win in Marseilles – about the scrummaging of Andrew Sheridan, the driving play of Simon Shaw, the boundless energy of Lewis Moody – but little of it has highlighted Corry's contribution. Rather like Martin Johnson before him, the Leicester forward prefers it this way. Deeply suspicious of the cult of the individual, he considers a successful rugby team to be far greater than the sum of its parts. As a consequence, he is as likely to talk himself up as Gavin Henson is to hide his light under a bushel.
"As a team in the semi-final of a tournament like this one we don't want to be harping back on a performance, even one as satisfying as last week's," he said yesterday. "What we did up front against Australia was special and it meant the absolute world to us. But we must now switch our focus away from that contest. If we don't better it against the French on Saturday, we'll go home as losers. And the French will pose a set of problems completely different to those posed by the Wallabies."
For all that, Corry was a central figure at Stade Vélodrome. He outplayed the belligerent Rocky Elsom so comprehensively that the Australian coaching team withdrew their most aggressive forward – the man charged with drawing a line in the sand and daring the English to cross it – with a full 20 minutes left on the clock. In the swamping of the tackle area, he was a one-man morass, a mudflat on legs. George Gregan, playing his 139th Test, had more trouble moving the ball from the breakdown than in any of the previous 138, largely because Corry counter-rucked the Wallabies to distraction.
Yesterday, Corry chewed the fat alongside the scrum-half Andy Gomarsall, another bit-part player in 2003. "My story is pretty much Andy's story," he said. "I promised myself after the victory parade through London that while it had been great to be a part of things, I'd play a major role in the next World Cup rather than another minor one. We both made it here, we're still in the hunt and we're enjoying it, massively. This has been a hard competition – the pool stage was the most competitive we've seen in any World Cup – but it's done us good in the sense that we were battle-hardened going into the quarter-final, largely because our knockout stage started two weeks before almost everyone else's. Now, we're in the last four with three other sides who have also had it tough."
Corry's ability to absorb blows to his honour and restore his emotional equilibrium in good time for the next challenge is among his principal virtues. Appointed captain by Andy Robinson towards the end of the 2005 Six Nations Championship, he suffered a traumatic few weeks when Lawrence Dallaglio, then his great rival for selectorial preferment, reappeared on the horizon and was lauded from the rooftops by his cheerleaders in the public prints. Corry responded with considerable dignity, just as he did when Robinson ordered him to sit out the 2006 tour of Australia – a trip he badly wanted to make in an effort to cement his place in the side. Last autumn, he plummeted through another few circles of hell in leading the side to defeats by New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa. When Brian Ashton succeeded Robinson, his first act was to find himself another skipper.
That skipper was Phil Vickery, the Wasps prop who is foremost amongst England's "grumpy old men", as the senior citizens of the team are affectionately known. Corry can be grumpy himself – "I've mastered one or two things on my way through life, and grumpiness is one of them" – but he was not remotely put out by his demotion, or even by the fact that he led the side in the pool games against the Springboks, Samoa and Tonga, during and after Vickery's two-match suspension, only to be relieved of the job a second time.
"I'm behind Phil 100 per cent," he said. "He's done a fantastic job. Even while he was banned, he was very much the captain of the party. I don't need the captaincy to find motivation. When you go into these enormous games, motivation comes from everywhere. A World Cup semi-final against France, in France? If you find yourself looking for an edge ahead of a match like this, there's something badly wrong."
In Corry's view, England will need a steep improvement in all disciplines if they are to prevail over the hosts. "Is it possible to improve to that degree in the space of a week? I think it is," he said. "If you look at the performance we put in against Tonga, and compare it with the one against Australia, you'll see it can be done."
Does the familiarity that exists between the two sides make it easier to prepare, or more difficult? "It's hard to say. We understand their game pretty well, just as they understand ours. There'll be some tinkering on both sides in an effort to find an advantage, but form and history count for nothing now. The opening game of the tournament, when Argentina beat the French, set the tone. It's purely a matter of who turns up on the night."