Rugby UNion: Vickery's growing stature

Gloucester 20 Northampton 15
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THE patience and the vision of Richard Hill is beginning to pay off at Gloucester. Youthful as his squad is, it is growing up rapidly and this careful assemblage suggests that the vintage years could soon be returning to Kingsholm.

To survive the Allied Dunbar Premiership you have to be able to learn quickly, on the hoof. One man in particular who appears to be doing just that is Gloucester's giant 6ft 4in, 20st tight-head prop, Phil Vickery.

On Saturday, on the centenary of their first meeting with Northampton at Kingsholm, Vickery was up against a world-class loose-head prop in South Africa's Garry Pagel. The pair had locked horns once already this season in the Tetley's Bitter Cup at Franklin's Gardens three weeks ago.

"The last time I came up against him I struggled," confessed the Cornishman, who at 21, is 10 years Pagel's junior. Gloucester lost that cup tie comprehensively, but Kingsholm is a different prospect. Backed by the notorious Shed section, a hyper critical, verbally violent, but hugely knowledgeable section of a generally appreciative crowd, Gloucester teams have compiled a winning percentage of 77.36 in 2,268 matches at the historic ground since 1891.

This match pushed up that percentage by another notch and Vickery, despite being on the pitch for just 40 minutes made a significant contribution. He matched Pagel push for shove, nudge for nudge; and if a nod's as good as a wink then he could be in the England starting line-up against Wales on Saturday.

"I learned a lot from that first meeting with Garry," Vickery explained. "I think I came off with a little bit more credit than last time."

It was a shame that Vickery only played for the first half; but Hill decided that a knock he took on the head from one of his team-mates was hard enough to warrant him being replaced. "He wanted to go on. I said no, because he has a big career ahead of him and his head was thumping. I know he was disappointed - he almost punched my lights out when I told him he wasn't allowed to go back on."

By then though Vickery had done enough. If the last 15 minutes or so were a trifle nervy for the home crowd, it all added to the drama of the match.

The Northampton cause had not been helped by the absence of the captain and No 8, Tim Rodber, with a hamstring problem - throwing into doubt his chances of being considered to face Wales this weekend - but silly errors compounded Saints' problems still further.

Their hopes were also severely dented by Rob Fidler in the line-out and the bruising presence of the Australian Richard Tombs and the Western Samoan Terry Fanolua in the centre. Fanolua struck two telling blows in the space of four minutes from which Saints found it impossible to recover.

The first saw him burst away, to the left, and when Jon Sleightholme and Ian Hunter failed to hang on to him, Fanolua was able to send Audley Lumsden under the posts. Fanolua's power was then rewarded in its own right when he exploded on to a Mark Mapletoft pass and crashed over. Gloucester's youngsters are coming of age.

Gloucester: Tries Lumsden, Fanolua; Conversions Mapletoft 2; Penalties Mapletoft 2. Northampton: Tries Thorneycroft, Seeley; Conversion Grayson; Penalty Grayson.

Gloucester: C Catling; B Johnson, T Fanolua, R Tombs, A Lumsden; M Mapletoft, S Benton; T Windo, C Fortey, P Vickery (A Powles, h-t), R Fidler, M Cornwell, P Glanville (capt; S Ojomoh, 54), S Devereux, N Carter.

Northampton: I Hunter; J Sleightholme, G Tonsend, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson (capt); G Pagel, A Clarke (C Johnson, 62), M Stewart (M Hynes, 62), J Phillips, J Chandler, D MacKinnon, B Pountney, G Seely.

Referee: C Hawke (NZ).