Rugby Union: Five Nations Countdown - Vickery awaits the call to show some true Cornish grit

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The Independent Online
England's reputation for domination in the front row has been in decline, but Phil Vickery, called up to the England squad yesterday, is a rugged young player with the physical presence to put that right. Chris Hewett reports.

Britain's farmers are not the only section of the workforce with a beef crisis on their hands - the same can be said of England's prop population, who once bestrode the world with their "best of breed" certificates but are now mocked as mere runts of the litter.

As recently as the 1995 World Cup, the New Zealand All Blacks were so petrified of the white-shirted muscle awaiting them in Cape Town that they based their entire game plan on avoiding forward contact. Now-adays, they happily take all the contact they can find. English scrummaging is in decline.

There is hope, however, and Phil Vickery, a 21-year-old K2 of a tight- head currently learning his hard, unforgiving but hugely influential trade at the front row academy otherwise known as Kingsholm. The Gloucester faithful are fiercely proud of their international props - the Burtons, the Blakeways, the Preedys, the Sargents - and, if the tough-nut intelligentsia who frequent the Kingsholm Shed have their way, Vickery will continue the grand tradition sooner rather than later.

Born in Barnstaple but raised on a mixed farm in the Cornish village of Kilkhampton, near Bude, he knows all about tradition. The Cornish take no lessons from anyone - not even the Cherry and Whites of Gloucester - in the serious business of propping and, although Vickery's formidable 6ft 3in, 20st frame allowed him to play some schoolboy rugby at both lock and No 8, he opted for life at the sharp end at 15.

"Cornwall is not the sort of place where things happen quickly, but if you can play rugby you find yourself going up the ladder at a rare old pace," he recalled. "Almost as soon as I started propping I found myself in the representative whirl - trials here, trials there, trials somewhere else - and, after switching clubs from Bude to Redruth, I was picked for a first- team game at Leeds at 17, which was quite an experience, one way or another.

"I made the England 16 Group and then England Colts, joining them for a tour of Canada. A few Gloucester boys were on the same trip, including Phil Greening, Trevor Woodman and Ed Pearce. I got on particularly well with Phil and at the end of the 1995 season I popped up to Kingsholm to watch him play against Brian Moore in an important match with Harlequins. There was a great atmosphere that day and I loved every minute of it, so I thought I'd give it a go there."

Since then Vickery has been exposed to the stresses and strains of life among the grown-ups and survived to tell the tale. His two matches for different England second-strings against the midweek All Blacks were particularly instructive - "I played against Bull Allen on both occasions and found him, well, pretty strong, really" - and he is now firmly in Woodward's plans.

"They're all good operators, those New Zealanders. They are always at you, always trying to put something on you and I think I learned more in that 160 minutes than in God knows how many domestic matches. The All Blacks are not fancy, quite the reverse. They are simple, direct and they do things properly. There is no let-up and, if you do something wrong yourself, you are always punished for it.

"I can't tell you how delighted I was to get a run in those two games. It meant someone in the set-up liked me and that was important, the sort of recognition that made the move from Cornwall, all the upheaval that comes from a change of scenery and change of lifestyle, worthwhile.

"In many ways, though, my heart is still in Cornwall; my family are there and I love Redruth as a club. They are proud of their rugby down there and it's heartbreaking that so many talented young players seem to be siphoned out of the county as soon as they reach college age. Sadly, there just aren't enough things happening, either academically or rugby-wise, to keep players within the borders."

For all his rapid development, Vickery still needs to apply the sandpaper to the odd rough edge. "He's good, no doubt about that," Gareth Chilcott, the former England and Lions prop who now heads up the marketing at Kingsholm, said. "But there's no point asking too much of him too early. He needs to settle down for the rest of this season, learn from his elders and betters and then really turn it on in September. That's when England should start pushing him."

If props mature later than most other forwards, Vickery has all the time in the world; especially as he possesses the particular kind of raw strength than comes from working on the land rather than working out in the gym. Two decades ago, Stack Stevens put Cornish front-row play on the England map with some international performances that made Land's End look flimsy and fragile. If his successor is made of the same stern stuff, the red rose pack may just find its feet once again.