Alex Corbisiero (left) made a huge impact as a replacement in 2013
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Alex Corbisiero’s Lions journey is one that very few players can claim to have experienced.
Ahead of this year’s South Africa tour, Brian Moore has been speaking to coaches and players about what makes the Lions the institution that it is today. In this instalment, Corbisiero tells the Telegraph Sport columnist about his remarkable journey from outcast to matchwinner in Australia in 2013 – one that could yet be made by Kyle Sinckler, who was handed his own Lions lifeline when he was drafted in to replace the injured Andrew Porter.
Brian Moore's Full Contact podcast – Alex Corbisiero
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Brian Moore: Where were you watching the squad announcement? Were you expecting to be picked?
Alex Corbisiero: I was on the fence. I felt I had a chance but knew that it probably wasn’t going to happen. I watched the announcement at London Irish, I think it was at lunch after training where they had Sky Sports News on. And we all watched it. I hadn’t had a call but in my mind, there was still hope. In the autumn internationals I played very well, but then I picked up an injury and missed the whole Six Nations. I’d only had two games back for London Irish by the time the squad was announced and that was probably the biggest thing holding me back from selection. So when it was announced that I wasn’t involved, it was [still] tough to take.
BM: When you miss out, are you told you’re on an official shortlist? Is anything said to you?
AC: I was told, ‘you’re in the mix to be called up’. There wasn’t much I could do other than just focus on getting back for those last couple games, for London Irish and England and wait for the call, if it happened.
BM: Well, you ended up going on tour to Argentina with England. What was the atmosphere like? Because there must have been other players who narrowly missed out as well?
AC: It was tough for a lot of guys in that England squad. There were some key players in there who wanted to put the performances in and show what we were capable of if the call came. It’s a weird situation to be in because playing for your country is so special and it means so much but at the same time it’s hard when you’re on those tours with your country [not to get distracted by] the dream of getting on that Lions tour.
BM: Cian Healy gets injured in the game against Western Force… were you watching the game and when he went down, what were you thinking?
AC: Oh yeah, I was. I was watching it with the England lads in Salta in Argentina, getting ready for that first Test against the Argentinians. With a player of that calibre, he is worth keeping on tour if there’s a chance. So, you know, you don’t really know what’s going on.
I didn’t hear anything from Wig [Graham Rowntree], Gats [Warren Gatland] or anyone like that. It was actually [England coach Stuart] Lancaster the next morning who texted me, ‘Can you come meet me by the pool?’ He sat me down and I had a feeling it might mean something to do with the Lions, but you just don’t know. The uncertainty and the worry is rushing over you. He sat me down and said, ‘Hey, you can pack your bags again, you’re on your way to Australia’.
He looked me dead in the eye and he basically told me, ‘I think you’ve got a good chance of getting into that Test team as a starter. And you should, too’. It was a great chat and I packed my bags and to have the support of the England boss meant a lot.
BM: When you get there, inevitably – I won’t say cliques necessarily – but groups form just because players like each other and they spend more time together. Was there any sign of that? Did you feel any difficulty in arriving late and, you know, getting up to speed with that side of it?
AC: I was a little apprehensive coming in, knowing that a lot of the guys have been together since early May at this point. But I did know a few of the England players there, and the environment was so welcoming, so warm. I didn’t know quite what to think, but it was absolutely fantastic. I think that’s one of the reasons we were successful in 2013, it was arms open, it was a team-first mentality. It wasn’t a group of individuals.
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BM: I remember in 1993, Martin Johnson coming out. All the Celts were hacked off because there were so many English people there anyway. And in 1989, there was open hostility when Rob Andrew came in. I remember Rob playing in a midweek game and he was absolutely electric. And I remember looking around at some people thinking, ‘yeah, you might well shut up now’.
I read that, growing up, Gethin Jenkins was one of your inspirations. Now, it’s difficult when you go on Lions tours because you’ve got people who you admire but you’ve got to get your head down. You’ve got to compete. I can’t socialise with people I’m supposed to be competing with. I’ll be civil to them, but I just can’t do it. What was your approach, for example, towards Gethin?
AC: Gethin Jenkins was a hero of mine. It was actually quite sad because I’d come to replace Cian, but then [Gethin] had been battling a calf injury. And so we only had a day or so in camp together and then he left.
But I agree with you. Some of my biggest struggles were truly letting down the friend barrier with people that you’re competing with, because of what’s at stake and how much you’ve committed and how badly you want it. Reflecting now on my career, I feel like I could have done more [to be] cordial and nice, but it probably didn’t go deep enough to build those relationships with the people I competed with. And I think it’s because I was just so focused on trying to make the team and be involved that I found that a little bit hard.
BM: You made the attempt! So, you take part in the loss to the Brumbies, and that’s only a few days before [the first Test]. Did you feel that it was going to be too soon?
AC: Yeah, I kind of did. There were two conversations going on in my head. I felt like I was putting a good case to be in the starting side but at the same time, getting picked in that Brumbies game isn’t a great sign that you’re going to start in the first Test.
BM: You get selected, tell me what you felt.
AC: I’ve actually never told anyone this before. Gats just announces the team in the meeting and you kind of just soak that up in there. But Graham Rowntree broke protocol and came and spoke to me just before the meeting and said, ‘you’re in kid’, and gave me a big hug. It was an incredible experience, to have that feeling of, ‘now I have the opportunity to go do this’, it was amazing.
But then immediately you sink back into [the feeling] that there are a million things to do to get ready to start a Test on Saturday.
BM: In the first half you’re winning and you’re having a good game but at about fifty minutes you have to come off. What did that feel like? Did you know the extent of the injury?
AC: Honestly, I felt great going into that first game. We were jogging out for the warm up, I ran out through the tunnel and there was this plank of wood that had turf over it and as I pushed off on it, as I was running with my studs, all of a sudden I felt my calf twinge and I was like, ‘Oh, you’re joking me’.
I knew it wasn’t good. I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God. Like, right now, after all of this, you’re going to throw this at me here?’
I was probably playing at seventy per cent. Running around the loose wasn’t too bad. It was just the scrum that was starting to get me. I battled on for as long as I could. I just emptied the tank and gave it everything I could. I had a couple of nice carries, a couple of things, but it was so frustrating to get there and not be 100 per cent.
BM: Towards the end of the game, the Lions led 23-21. Kurtley Beale misses two, frankly, very kickable penalties but you have to watch from the bench, what was the tension like?
AC: It is in the hands of your team, your team-mates, your brothers. You’ve got to trust in them. But oh my God, is it nerve-wracking? It’s very similar to how I feel sometimes when I’m coaching now. They were pretty nervous moments. But when he missed that kick and we got the first win… to get the win and get that pressure off was massive.
BM: Well, I don’t know what it’s like to win a first Test because on both my two tours we lost the first one! But you missed out on the second Test because of the calf. What was the atmosphere after the loss of the second Test?
AC: Gats is bulletproof in those environments. The way he carried himself… the plan was to go to Noosa and have a few days to unwind regardless of the result. And the fact that he still let the guys have a bit of fun, he didn’t change the plan or crumble or panic under pressure, it was a good, top down sort of way to handle the thing as a group.
BM: You get back in for the third Test, but the omission that grabbed the headlines, naturally, was Brian Driscoll’s. What was the reaction within the squad to his non-selection?
There was shock when Brian O'Driscoll wasn't selected for the third Test
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
AC: I didn’t see it coming, I just assumed that because of the role he played in the squad that he would be involved. And so no one knew.
And, you know, it’s on everyone’s mind, but at the same time, we’ve just got to get on with it. The funniest thing that I can remember – we can laugh about it now – is on the day of the Test, when we’re in the hotel, I come down to lunch and it’s Gats, Farrell, Rowntree and [Rob] Howley and they’re watching one those videos – I think it’s from the movie where the guy’s playing Hitler and he’s losing it. But they’ve had it that ‘you’re dropping Brian O’Driscoll’ and they were watching it and laughing over it. And I just never forgot that. But at the same time, that is sport and no one’s untouchable.
Brian handled [being dropped] with so much grace. I think one of the key reasons we were successful in that third Test is that on the Thursday session he ran the ‘Australia’ team. And they absolutely carved us up, it was like he played his third Test on that Thursday, he shredded us apart. He was running it, he was hungry. And I think that’s what made us good because, later that day, I’d done my recovery and came back down to look at some of the video analysis. And I get in there and it’s Foxy [Jonathan Davies], it’s [Jamie] Roberts and it’s O’Driscoll sitting there and they’re going through footage and O’Driscoll is actually helping them get better for the weekend. I honestly think that is a key catalyst of why we were successful, that big personalities parked the ego for the good of the team.
Brian O'Driscoll (second left) helped coach the Test side when he found out he wasn't playing
BM: Were you fully fit?
AC: No, I was probably, again, 70 per cent, but I was confident it wasn’t going to tear so I could empty the tank.
BM: You scored a try, it must have been a monumental feeling? But not only that, when you won, you were named man of the match by Warren Gatland. How did that feel?
AC: It was amazing. That Test was incredible. I felt good, we were in this amazing team, it’s the biggest stage and it’s on the line. It’s one big game to empty the tank. It’s an incredible opportunity to do something powerful. Alun Wyn Jones, the way he spoke to us in the change room just before we went out, he says, ‘You know, there’s two different futures ahead. You can wake up tomorrow and you wear this jersey for the rest of your life… or you won’t’. That resonated with me that you have this opportunity to do something special.
So, to go out there to get the try early [after two minutes] was amazing. But the try was the icing on the cake – it was the scrum, it was the set piece, it was the dominance, it was the work rate. It was all the things that I knew I could deliver that just helped get the machine rolling and allowed us to dominate Australia.
Alex Corbisiero scores against Australia
BM: Let’s go away from the light for a second. I know that you’ve been battling testicular cancer in the last couple of years, can you give us an update?
AC: I had very good news in December that my scan showed that the mass that was around my lymph nodes had gone. And so I was diagnosed cancer-free then. And so I’m just in a monitoring phase right now. I’m about to get some check-ups in the next month or so and hopefully it’s continued good news, but I’m feeling good, getting my strength and health – and my hair and beard – back, which is nice.
I am just grateful to be able to have some normality in life. It was a tough experience. It was a bit of a setback. But I’m just really grateful to be living life. And I have my lovely fiancee and family and support systems. I’m just a happy guy. And I’m just buzzing to be talking to you today and get to talk about special memories from 2013, which are some of the fondest of my life.
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