A broad smile crosses Alex Corbisiero’s face at the mere mention of The British & Irish Lions – and in that moment, you can see exactly what the iconic team means to him.
Whether it’s his first memories as a fan – watching those heroes of the 1997 Tour – or his own experience 16 years later, the most famous rugby institution changed Corbisiero’s life.
“That’s where I found rugby, I was in love with it and then seeing the Lions in this all-star coming together [in 1997], at that age I didn’t even know what it was,” he recalls.
“I just remember [Jeremy] Guscott’s drop goal and winning that game [the second Test] was just in my brain from a young age of going nuts – cheering and celebrating.
Player Profile: Alex Corbisiero
“Maybe at the time you don’t quite understand the history behind the Lions but then as that grows and that first experience with them, you really start to embody what it’s about.”
The 33-year-old almost never got his chance to don the red jersey on the 2013 Tour to Australia after injury appeared to rule him out of selection for Warren Gatland’s squad.
But the stars aligned and the England loosehead prop 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 Lion #801, it quickly dawned on him that he was about to follow in the footsteps of some of rugby’s all-time greats.
“It probably wasn’t until I actually went out in 2013 that it really hit home how special the Lions is,” Corbisiero continues. “It was heartbreaking to miss out on selection initially.
“But I kind of understood it at the time. I felt like if they had picked the squad at Christmas, I would have been in but unfortunately I had five months out with a knee injury.
“I was rushing to get back but at the same time, I couldn’t push my body any quicker than it went so I’d played about a game and a half of rugby by the time they announced the squad.
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“I was devastated to miss the Six Nations but guys had played well, they deserved their spot. I just took it as, ‘you might still go’ – you’re probably one [injury] away.”
Aged 24 at the time, the London Irish forward was thrust into the thick of the action on his arrival Down Under and made his Lions Tour debut in the thumping 64-0 win over Combined Country.
Two more substitute appearances followed against New South Wales Waratahs and the Brumbies, with Corbisiero relishing every moment of his Lions experience.
“I felt like I rose to the challenge and thrived in that environment and I loved it and it challenged me. It helped mould me into the player, the person I am today,” he explains.
“It kind of hits home when you’re standing in a circle and you’ve got Sam Warburton speaking, there’s Paul O’Connell there, there’s Brian O’Driscoll, let alone Johnny Sexton and the others.
“That’s when it becomes super real. You’re nervous about your own game and wanting to get your job right and get it out there, but just seeing some absolute leaders of men who are exceptional characters.
“If it was World War II, these are the type of people that would’ve risen up and done heroics for their country at that time. To stand in a room with them and have them instil that belief and power in you is quite a special feeling.”
Despite being a late call-up, Corbisiero did enough to earn selection for the first Test in a powerful front three that included Tom Youngs and Adam Jones as the Lions won 23-21 in Brisbane.
But the elation of winning the Test was diluted by injury for Corbisiero.
“It was amazing to get the win and what a pressure reliever that can be if you get the first W. But at the same time, personally for myself, I actually injured my calf so that was frustrating,” he says.
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“It was impacting me the whole game. There was uncertainty if I was still going to be on the Tour, I was pretty positive I wouldn’t be playing the next week based on how it felt.
“At the same time, there’s also the feeling of, Kurtley Beale missed that kick right at the end and we could’ve lost, so as much as it was great to get the win, there’s a lot of work to be done.
“It also motivated me a lot when the third Test finally came around. I had my opportunity and my body had come right to put right what Australia had done in that second Test.”
The Wallabies levelled the series with a narrow 16-15 victory in Melbourne but having missed the second Test, Corbisiero returned to the starting line-up for the decider in Sydney.
That evening proved to be the greatest in Corbisiero’s career as he demolished the Australian scrum, forcing opposite number Ben Alexander to be replaced on 35 minutes.
He also scored the opening try of the contest, memorably being photographed celebrating under a sea of bodies, and was awarded man of the match for his titanic performance.
“A lot of people always remember the try for me and I’m grateful for that – what a way to start probably the biggest game of my career,” Corbisiero reflects.
“But really what I’m most proud of and what I sleep easy on is that was the pinnacle of my rugby career, the biggest game, the one time where it was all on the line and I had my best game.
“I think that’s probably my most complete – going on a Lions series, winning it, playing in the Tests, being able to play a part in the series and I feel like I contributed.
“It just means the world to me, the history and the way the Lions goes on and 801 is my number for life. That number is with me forever and nobody can take it away from me.”
Further injuries dogged Corbisiero after returning from Australia and he only played two more international matches before retiring aged 27 to embark on his next stage of 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 all-clear last year following treatment, Corbisiero later discovered the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and underwent a further round of chemotherapy.
But during his battle, which he has used to raise awareness about testicular cancer, Corbisiero admits the support from the Lions family has helped him on his darkest days.
“From the players you played with and the organisation and the way they look after you for life, but also from the fans as well, the support I had during cancer across the board was incredible,” he explains.
“It was motivating, it drove me, it picked me up on poor days and it helped me when I needed to face the most adversity I’d faced in my life. It was right there, pushing me through.
“Being a Lion has changed my life, my profile, the lifestyle I’m able to live. The life and the vocation I have after rugby, a lot of that is built off the success of the Lions and what I was able to do.
“Those fans have my back forever now because I went and put myself through fire for the cause and the team and they reciprocate that and it’s quite a special thing to have.”