"When I was 19, I was milking cows twice a day, six days a week," says Phil Vickery, newly retired from the professional sporting career that took him away from the family farm in Cornwall and hurled him into the fires of two World Cup finals, two British and Irish Lions Test series and thousands upon thousands of scrums, rucks and mauls that inflicted the heaviest of tolls on his unusually heavy West Countryman's frame. "I remember feeling badly homesick after joining Gloucester, and I spent a lot of time wondering if playing top-level rugby was really what I wanted to do. Looking back, the decision to give it a go was the best one I ever made, but I didn't know that then."
Just as Vickery didn't know in September that his playing days would be over before the end of October. Four weeks into this Premiership season, while leading Wasps in a match against his old club at Kingsholm, he took what he describes, in tones as soft and deep as a favourite armchair, as "a whack on the head". And then? "I played on, of course. I always played on if I possibly could, although there were times when it wasn't the most sensible option." This leads to one of his little digressions. "Talking of which, did you see that business with Chris Ashton in the England-South Africa game? Now, he really shouldn't have stayed on the field. He was miles out of it. Bloody cruel keeping him out there, if you ask me."
Then, the grand old prop picks up the threads of his story and continues. "Afterwards, it quickly became apparent that something wasn't right with my neck, that things were getting worse. And it went on from there, basically, until it was made clear to me by the doctors that this really was the end. I'd had so many injuries down the years that I assumed everything would sort itself out and I'd be playing again a few weeks down the road. But it didn't turn out that way. In the end, I had no choice but to say to myself: 'Phil, you've had a good run, and now it's over. Give it up, you silly old sod. Give it up and get on with the rest of your life'."
Vickery had undergone major surgery more than once during his tour of duty through the darkest regions of top-flight rugby: on his neck, his back, his shoulder. As he had also managed to fracture an eye socket, bust a forearm and make an unholy mess of his own ribcage as well as those belonging to his less fortunate opponents, the orthopaedic calamity known as Jonny Wilkinson frequently appeared blessed by comparison. Had rugby been worth it, all things considered?
"Oh yes," the 34-year-old replies. "Absolutely worth it. I could have done without the injuries, of course, but if you play this game to any level, you quickly learn to accept them as part of the deal. Even the bad ones. I'd have happily played on after this one if the doctors had suggested I could do so. I can't deny there's been a fair bit of pain down the years, but during the grim times I learned things about myself I'd never have discovered otherwise. I wouldn't have swapped any of it for anything.
"To be honest with you, I'm missing it terribly. I haven't even started to come to terms with what's happened because it's still far too raw, too close to the bone. I think that partly, it's because everything happened so quickly: the gap separating my last match and my retirement announcement was... what, four weeks? I had no time to talk it through with people, no time to prepare for life after professional sport, to digest the implications. But there's another reason why I feel the way I do at the moment, and it's to do with my passion for rugby. Now that I have an opportunity to think it over, I realise more and more how much I love the game. It's very dear to me and I know I won't find a replacement for it. There are a few things I'd like to try, but at the moment, I can't think of anything that will give me the same satisfaction."
Just at the moment, he has plenty to keep him busy: a young family, a thriving sports clothing business, a recently published autobiography that, by rugby standards at least, is selling like hot cakes. Only this week, he was to be found at a well-attended signing session in London. In addition, he is caught up in a nationwide grassroots rugby development project financed by the Royal Bank of Scotland, the title sponsors of the Six Nations Championship. "It's about giving local clubs a make-over," he explains. "A lick of paint, a bit of elbow grease and a show of support from the people in the neighbourhood can make all the difference to the rugby life of an area."
And, at the back of his sportsman's mind but slowly inching its way towards the front of it, is the possibility of embarking on a coaching career. "I'd like to give it a go and I can see it happening, but not for a while," he says. "I don't want to rush into decisions I might end up regretting, because while I think I know my rugby, coaching isn't as easy as all that, is it? You can't just rock up somewhere and say: 'Right, I played a few games for England and won a few trophies, so give me a big job and I'll see you right'." (There are those who might argue that Martin Johnson, his fellow World Cup-winning tight forward and national captain, did precisely this, suddenly appearing on the top rung of the ladder without bothering with any of the rungs beneath it. That, though, is another story.)
There are those in the coaching community who believe Vickery will make a very decent fist of it, if and when he decides to take on the challenge. Brian Ashton, who chose Vickery as his England captain in 2007 and was rewarded with an honest-to-goodness performance of great resourcefulness as the team recovered from the humiliation of a 36-0 defeat by South Africa to reach a second successive World Cup final, is the most eminent of those who suspect he has what it takes. "I think he could be highly effective, provided the theoreticians don't micro-manage the uniqueness out of him and dilute what he has to offer," Ashton said this week.
This was an instructive comment, given Vickery's own take on what kind of coach he might be. "I never had much time for all the micro-coaching, all the extra bits and pieces that seemed to be bolted on season after season," he says. "I was far more interested in building relationships with the people in my team and creating the kind of dressing-room environment that persuade a group of individuals to go through hell for each other. I earned a good living from the sport, but I think I went through my whole professional career being an amateur at heart. If I felt I was surrounded by a bloody good group of boys who were up for a bloody good game of rugby, I was as happy as could be.
"I like to look back on those periods when there was a real sense of togetherness, be it with Gloucester or Wasps, England or the Lions, because in a funny way, it helps me deal with the sadness of being forced to retire at a time that wasn't of my choosing. It's then that I have a real understanding of how much rugby has given me, of what a privilege it was to play at the level I did, and with the people I did. If we take Wasps as an example... God, they really couldn't have done any more for me. They took me on despite my injury record, handled me brilliantly in every respect and made so many things possible for me internationally. I also caught the end of their period of dominance in English rugby and won Premiership and European titles with them. If that isn't something that makes you thank your lucky stars, I don't know what is."
Back in the summer of last year, after being recalled to the Lions side for the third and final meeting with the Springboks in Johannesburg, he was asked to reflect on his previous appearance for the Test team in Durban a fortnight previously – a game in which he finished such a distant second to the powerful Zimbabwean-born prop Tendai Mtawarira that he was given the shepherd's crook treatment early in the second half. "You know you've had a shit game when your wife and your mother text you afterwards to tell you they still love you," he said.
It is well nigh impossible not to love a sportsman capable of such piercingly funny, generously self-deprecating humour, which is why they still revere him at Gloucester, even though he left them for those bloody Londoners. "A career-ending injury, suffered there of all places? You can't say life isn't ironic, can you?" he remarks. "When I first went back to Kingsholm with Wasps, the crowd gave me plenty of stick. I expected it, and I received it. But as time went on they started being nicer to me, and by the end, I thought: 'You know what, Phil? They still like you here'."
That isn't the half of it. He is liked everywhere rugby is played.