The seizure of the England captaincy may or may not be the final piece in the Phil Vickery jigsaw, but this much is certain: it is a mighty achievement for a player who has spent a good 50 per cent of his professional career in bits. A four-square chunk of West Country front-row masonry apparently constructed by the firm responsible for Stonehenge, the 30-year-old prop forward knows what it is to see his livelihood threatened by serious orthopaedic trauma. When a sportsman laughs in the face of medical science as often as Vickery, he demands inclusion in the ranks of the remarkable.
There is an all-or-nothing quality about the tight-head specialist, first capped by the then unknighted Clive Woodward in 1998 and most recently decorated against the Springboks in November - a game that ended in defeat and cost Woodward's successor, Andy Robinson, his job as head coach. When Vickery is fully fit, he plays rugby of the highest calibre. He scrummages heavily, if not with any great technical mastery; more strikingly, he tackles like a flanker and carries the ball like a No 8. When he is unfit, he tends to stay unfit for half a season or more.
Three back operations, a bout of neck surgery, a "blow-out" fracture of the eye socket, a busted forearm... Vickery has paid through the nose for his successes. Yet even before receiving the honour bestowed upon him yesterday, he would unhesitatingly have described his investment as worthwhile, for it brought him three Lions Test caps in Australia in 2001 and a World Cup triumph on the same plot of union land two years later. Indeed, it might easily be argued that the pack he anchored on that night of nights in Sydney was the finest ever fielded by England - better, just about, than the 1980 Grand Slam-winning combination that boasted the likes of Bill Beaumont, Fran Cotton, Roger Uttley and Phil Blakeway, a quietly spoken tight head from the Gloucester club.
Blakeway was one of Vickery's revered predecessors at Kingsholm - a troglodytes' nursery if ever there was one, a finishing school that perfected the art of the bunch of fives in the way certain Swiss establishments specialised in flower arranging for the upper classes. The young Vickery, born in Barnstaple but raised on the family farm in Cornwall, moved there as a teenager, served his time as a training-ground punchbag and then forced a place in the first XV just as the leading English clubs were abandoning the amateur values he had encountered during spells with Bude and Redruth.
Within a season, he was playing international rugby. Twenty-one is no age for a front-rower, but Vickery took to the big stage with considerable confidence, helping England to put 60 points on Wales at Twickenham. The fact that he also landed himself in hot water by roughing up the experienced visiting flanker Colin Charvis merely added to his lustre. Here was a powerful, aggressive youngster with great physical gifts and a mean streak to go with them.
But few people are wholly blessed in a game that can legitimately describe itself as the most demanding team sport of all. After successfully leading an inexperienced England side to Argentina for a brief two-match jaunt in the summer of 2002 - Woodward fielded five uncapped players in the Test against the Pumas in Buenos Aires, yet the tourists won a famous victory that would underpin their assault on the Webb Ellis Trophy - Vickery broke down with back problems and missed that season's Six Nations Championship. Specialists discovered a displaced disc was grating against a nerve and operated.
For a while, it seemed England would travel to the World Cup without their most dynamic tight forward, yet he was restored for the pre-tournament victory over Australia in Melbourne - to many the outstanding performance of Woodward's stewardship of the national side. It was a temporary return. In 2004, the back problems flared again. More agony, more surgery, more weeks and months wondering what the future might hold.
When Vickery broke down once more during a Premiership match with Saracens almost exactly a year ago, few expected him to make a third comeback, especially as he had publicly voiced concerns over his long-term well-being during his previous rehabilitation, painting a graphic word picture of his profound frustration at being unable to hold his baby daughter because of the pain in his back. As it turned out, he would not play for Gloucester again.
He did, however, sign a deal with Wasps, on a suck-it-and-see basis. That has proved the making of him - or rather, the remaking. He resumed active duty in October, enjoying one or two runs in the EDF Energy Cup before moving up a gear for the early rounds of the Heineken Cup. In a matter of weeks, he was playing for his country.
Brian Ashton, the new head coach, was one of Robinson's specialist support staff when Vickery materialised off the bench to turn the first of two tight contests with South Africa - not least by scoring the winning try from the traditional prop's range of six inches. Now, Ashton is top dog. If he receives the kind of ultra-loyal support Vickery offered Robinson during those desperate weeks before Christmas, he will not go far wrong.
"I can speak only for myself, but if we're going to go to war, Andy's the man I'd like to lead us," the new captain said at the time. "He is everything I want in a coach - a good fella, a man with a tremendous amount of knowledge." Ashton is also one of life's "good fellas", widely credited with having forgotten more about coaching than his peers ever knew. He trusts Vickery to shoulder the burden that weighed down the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Jason Robinson and Martin Corry. If their relationship prospers, it may provide the ailing world champions with the stimulus they so badly need.
Life and times of the Raging Bull
Philip John Vickery
Height: 1.90cm (6'3").
Weight: 121kg (19st).
Position: Tight-head prop.
Club: Bude, Redruth, Gloucester, Wasps. Caps 49.
1976 Born 14 March in Barnstaple, Devon.
1995 Joins Gloucester.
1998 21 February - makes England debut in Five Nations match against Wales after just 34 appearances at club level.
1999 Recovers from neck injury to play for England in World Cup.
2000 Misses tour of South Africa with shoulder injury.
2001 Named in British & Irish Lions squad to tour Australia.
2002 Captains a below-strength England to Test victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires. Starts all three of England's autumn Tests at Twickenham as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are beaten.
2003 February - suffers disc injury in training with Gloucester and misses Six Nations.
October - Scores first senior points for England by touching down in the 35-22 World Cup group win over Samoa.
November - Part of the England side which beat Australia 20-17 to win the World Cup.
2004 Misses tour to Australia and New Zealand with back injury.
2006 Quits Gloucester after 11 years and signs three-year deal with Wasps.
2007 2 January - named as England captain for Six Nations in place of Leicester's Martin Corry.
Painful words: "I don't know if I can get back to play at all. I may find my back is not good enough."
Vickery in April 2006 after undergoing his third back operation in four yearsReuse content