by Andy Baber
August 30, 2022 12:19
Reading time: 7 minutes
A wide smile crosses Alex Corbisiero’s face at the mere mention of the British and Irish Lions – and then you can see exactly what the iconic team means to him.
Whether it’s his earliest memories as a fan – watching those heroes of the 1997 Tour – or his own experience 16 years later, rugby’s most famous institution has changed Corbisiero’s life.
“That’s where I discovered rugby, I was in love with it and then I saw the Lions in this all-star come together [in 1997]at that age, I didn’t even know what it was,” he recalls.
“I just remember [Jeremy] Drop goal from Guscott and victory of this match [the second Test] was just in my brain from a young age to go crazy – clap and celebrate.
Player profile: Alex Corbisiero
“Maybe at the time you didn’t quite understand the story behind the Lions, but as it grows and that first experience with them you really start to embody what it’s all about. acts.”
The 34-year-old almost never had the chance to don the red jersey in the 2013 Tour of Australia after injury appeared to rule him out of Warren Gatland’s squad selection.
But the stars aligned and the loose England stalwart got his chance at the expense of Cian Healy, whose injury against Western Force ruled him out of the rest of the Tour.
And from the moment Corbisiero received the call to become Leo #801he soon realized he was about to follow in the footsteps of some of rugby’s biggest names.
“It was probably only when I came out in 2013 that I really understood how special Lions are,” Corbisiero continues. “It was heartbreaking to miss the selection at the start.
“But I kind of understood it at the time. I felt like if they had picked the team at Christmas I would have been in it but unfortunately I had a five month absence with a knee injury.
“I was rushing back but at the same time I couldn’t push my body any faster than it was going so I had played about a game and a half of rugby by the time they announced the squad.
The history of the Tour 2021
“I was devastated to miss the Six Nations but the lads had played well, they deserved their place. I just took it as ‘you could still go’ – you’re probably one [injury] a way.”
Aged 24 at the time, the Irish striker from London was thrown into the thick of the action on his arrival Down Under and made his Lions Tour debut in the crushing 64-0 win over Combined Country .
Two more substitute matches followed against the New South Wales Waratahs and the Brumbies, with Corbisiero savoring every moment of his experience with the Lions.
“I felt like I was up to the challenge and thrived in that environment and I loved it and it challenged me. It helped me become the player, the person that I am today,” he explains.
“It hits home when you’re standing in a circle and you have Sam Warburton talking, there’s Paul O’Connell there, there’s Brian O’Driscoll, not to mention Johnny Sexton and the others.
“This is where it gets super real. You’re nervous about your own game and want to do your job well and publicize it, but you only see absolute leaders of men who are outstanding characters.
“If it was World War II, these are the kind of people who would have risen up and done heroism for their country in that era. To stand in a room with them and see them instill that belief and that power in you is a rather special feeling.
Despite being called up late, Corbisiero did enough to be selected for the first Test in a powerful front three that included Tom Youngs and Adam Jones as the Lions won 23-21 at Brisbane.
But the joy of winning the test was diluted by an injury for Corbisiero.
“It was amazing to get the win and what a pressure relief it can be if you get the first W. But at the same time, personally for me, I hurt my calf so that was frustrating,” says- he.
A to Z of the British and Irish Lions
“It stuck with me the whole game. There was uncertainty if I was still going to be on the Tour, I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be playing next week based on how I felt.
“At the same time, there’s also the feeling that Kurtley Beale missed that kick in the end and we could have lost, so while it was great to get the win, there’s a lot of work to be done.
“It also gave me a lot of motivation when the third test finally came. I had my chance and my body had come to correct what Australia had done in that second test.
The Wallabies tied the series with a narrow 16-15 win in Melbourne but after missing the second Test, Corbisiero returned to the starting lineup for the decider in Sydney.
That night proved to be the biggest of Corbisiero’s career as he demolished the Australian scrum, forcing his counterpart Ben Alexander to be substituted in the 35th minute.
He also scored the contest’s opening try, memorably pictured celebrating under a sea of bodies, and was named man of the match for his titanic performance.
“A lot of people still remember the try for me and I’m grateful for that – what a way to start probably the biggest game of my career,” Corbisiero recalled.
“But really, what I’m most proud of and what I easily sleep on is that it was the pinnacle of my rugby career, the biggest game, the one time when everything was on the line and I had my best game.
“I think that’s probably my most complete – to be in a Lions series, to win it, to play in the tests, to be able to play a part in the series and I feel like I have contributed.
“It just means the world to me, the story and the way Lions go on and 801 is my number for life. This number is with me forever and no one can take it away from me.
Further injuries dogged Corbisiero after returning from Australia and he only played two more international appearances before retiring at 27 to embark on the next stage of his life.
He has since enjoyed success as an analyst for NBC Sports in America, but in 2019 he revealed he was facing his biggest challenge yet after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
After initially being given the green light after treatment last year, Corbisiero later discovered the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and underwent another round of chemotherapy.
But during his battle, which he used to raise awareness about testicular cancer, Corbisiero admits the support of the Lions family helped him through his darkest days.
“From the players you’ve played with, the organization and how they care for you for life, but also the fans, the support I’ve had through cancer on all levels was amazing,” he says.
“It was motivating, it motivated me, it lifted me up on bad days and it helped me when I needed to deal with the greatest adversity I had encountered in my life. It was just there, pushing me through.
“Being a Lion has changed my life, my profile, the lifestyle I am able to live. The life and vocation I have after rugby is very much based on the success of the Lions and what I have been able to do.
“These fans have my back forever now because I went and set myself on fire for the cause and the team and they returned the favor and that’s something special to have.”