Rugby Union: The prop for the hard place

Herdsman from heart of Cornwall thrust to the fore as new England head for the badlands
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The Independent Online
Tim Glover

says that in Phil Vickery

the tourists have found

a forward of substance

THEY CALL him the Inseminator. As a qualified herdsman, Phil Vickery has spent most of his adult life impregnating cows with a three-foot syringe in order to build up the family's dairy herd. It sounds messy. "It is messy," Vickery said.

After such stiff-arm tactics, holding up the tight-head of the England scrummage would seem like a piece of cake. At 6ft 3in and 191/2 stone, Vickery is the embodiment of a modern prop forward. Not only is he built like a barn, but he is also naturally strong and mobile.

The question that applies to Vickery, and a host of fresh faces in the England party for the tour of the southern hemisphere which starts this week, is will it make him or break him?

"This is a fantastic opportunity to prove just how good we are," Vickery said. "I'm fighting for an England place with a load of good players and I see this tour as the ultimate challenge."

Vickery, with one cap under his belt, which is one more than half of his fellow travellers, joins Graham Rowntree and Richard Cockerill in the England front row against Australia in Brisbane on Saturday. The Australians, who have already spoken of a "Pommie thrashing" on the basis of England's weakened party, could refer the front page of the Rugby Football Union's media guide to the Trade Descriptions Act. In a photo montage, it features Jeremy Guscott, Paul Grayson, Lawrence Dallaglio, David Rees and Will Greenwood, all of whom have withdrawn from the tour.

Vickery could not care less. "If you're not fit or really hungry for it, I don't see the point in travelling," he said.

Vickery, who was born in Barnstaple and raised in the Cornish village of Kilkhampton, has played for Bude and Redruth. "Cornwall is not the sort of place where things happen quickly but almost as soon as I started propping I moved up the ladder at a rare old pace."

On a tour with England Colts he met up with the Gloucester boys Phil Greening and Trevor Woodman. At the end of the 1995 season, Vickery enjoyed a day out at Kingsholm and a move to Gloucester followed. "The people there are similar to those at home," Vickery said. "In a way it is as if I have two families."

Before this season he had played only 14 first-team games for the Cherry and Whites and has prospered under the coaching of the former England captain Richard Hill, and Paul Balsom's fitness regime. Not since Stack Stevens, of Penzance and Newlyn, who made his international debut in 1969, has a Cornishman propped for England.

Vickery, who is 22 - a mere fledgling in the specialist, murky world of the front row - was on the replacements' bench when England were pushed around in Paris by the French and was then "blooded" in the massacre of Wales at Twickenham.

John Mitchell, the forwards' coach, had called for more aggression and Vickery supplied it, featuring not only in a pushover try but subsequently being cited for punching Colin Charvis. A 30-day suspension was overturned on appeal, not because Vickery was deemed not guilty of throwing a punch, but because the discredited citing procedure was not followed to the letter.

Vickery's adult education included two matches for England second strings against the All Blacks before Christmas. "I played against Bull Allen on both occasions and found him, well, pretty strong. They're all good operators those New Zealanders. They are always at you and I think I learned more in that 160 minutes than in God knows how many domestic matches. There is no let-up and if you do something wrong you are punished for it."

In addition to the obligatory shaven head, Vickery has a message tattooed, in Chinese, on his left arm. It means: "I will fight you to the finish." It cost him pounds 40. "I don't think my mum was terribly pleased," he said. On his right arm he has another tattoo, the flag of St George, accompanied by a bulldog. It didn't cross the Inseminator's mind to have an image of a shrinking violet, or even a Cornish pasty, etched on to his skin.

"Phil's got a very hard edge, which is what you need to succeed," Hill said. However, Vickery admitted: "I've got a long way to go and there is a massive amount for me to learn."

The crash course continues over the next six weeks in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, rugby's most hostile territory. "Phil has a lot going for him and showed against Wales that he can cope at a high level," Roger Uttley, the England manager, said.

"Now he has to progress a stage further. All the players have a big challenge in front of them and it depends how they respond to that. In the past they would have waited two or three years for that chance but now they've been put on the fast track."

Whatever happens, it promises to be a fascinating journey, not least for the giant Gloucester tight-head prop.

"He was 8lb when he was born, but his legs were always very muscly," said his mother, Elaine, who works in the kitchen of the London Inn in Kilkhampton. "I've got pictures of him as a baby and his legs look like Michelin tyres. We're so proud of him. He's worked so hard to get where he is."

The breakthrough boys

Tim Stimpson

AFTER spending nearly all of last season on the sidelines locked in a contract dispute with Newcastle, Leicester's new full-back is one member of the England party who is very definitely not in need of a rest. Ironically, the 24-year-old, who lost his England and Newcastle places last autumn to Matt Perry and Stuart Legg respectively, is more likely to feel rusty when he wins his seventh England cap against Australia on Saturday. With Perry switched to centre, the England chief coach Clive Woodward will expect to exploit the powerful angles of running into the line which earned the tall, strapping Stimpson selection for the Lions a year ago.

Spencer Brown

THE former Royal Marines musician has hit the high notes this season at Richmond in concert with his fellow wing Dominic Chapman who is also in the party. Brown, 24, has the physique and pace of a whippet, but is swiftly acquiring a terrier's reputation for defensive tenacity. This was highlighted by one crunching tackle he unleashed on the All Black back Tane Umaga while playing for the English Rugby Partnership XV against New Zealand last November. More of the same will be needed in abundance on Saturday when he makes his international debut against Australia, who possess in Ben Tune and Joe Roff two of the strongest wings in the game.

Danny Grewcock

A FEW months ago, suggestions that Martin Johnson might not be a first-choice lock for England come the World Cup would have been greeted with derision. But that was before Grewcock's emergence as a second row of genuine merit. The 25-year-old has just had an outstanding season as a key component in a commanding Saracens pack, combining set-piece reliability with the athleticism and handling skills which are de rigueur for modern forwards. His sixth cap beckons against Australia, but not just as a stand- in for the absent Johnson. Woodward insists he would have been selected anyway even if the Lions captain had been available.

Ben Sturnham

THE ill wind which inflicted injuries on Richard Hill and Francois Pienaar at a crucial stage during Saracens' ultimately unsuccessful push towards the league title last season has triggered an amazing rise through the ranks for the 24-year-old Sturnham. The 6ft 5in blindside flanker, who joined the club from St Albans in 1995, quickly found his feet in Saracens' back row and his impressive display opposite Lawrence Dallaglio in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final at Twickenham helped to secure his berth in England's tour party. He will take yet another step up his career ladder on Saturday in Brisbane when he makes his first Test appearance.