Phil Vickery is a Cornishman to his trunk-like fingertips, despite being born across the county line in Barnstaple, and his rugby world is an appropriately Arthurian kind of place – an unforgiving shadowland where simple codes of honour hold sway, where physical trauma is suffered and accepted without so much as a syllable of complaint, where a fight to the finish is part and parcel of a good afternoon's sport. During his long stint at the Gloucester club, where prop forwards are revered in the way St Petersburg reveres its ballerinas, he was re-christened "Raging Bull". Vickery does not do rage these days, but he still goes about his work with a noble directness Hemingway might have recognised.
During the latter part of his time at Kingsholm, some of the adoring locals feared he had lost something of himself. "C'mon Vicks," yelled a denizen of the Shed as the big front-rower involved himself unusually half-heartedly in a bout of argy-bargy. "I 'its me missus 'arder than that." For a few days last spring, it seemed they had been proved right. Having moved to Wasps on a suck-it-and-see basis – Vickery had suffered a third serious back injury shortly before leaving Gloucester and was at serious risk of joining the ranks of ex-rugby players before making a recovery so complete that the new England coach Brian Ashton appointed him national captain – he was laid low by a fellow West Countryman, Jason Hobson of Bristol, during a Premiership match. He had absorbed dozens of punches down the years, but this one left its mark. The last two rounds of the Six Nations Championship would go ahead without him.
"I was all over the shop for a while," Vickery admitted a month or so later. "I've been 'sparkled' a few times in my career, but I've never experienced anything quite like that. I couldn't play and I couldn't train. There was nothing for me to do, except sit around being a miserable bugger. It was disappointing." Then, almost as an afterthought, he added: "I hope Hobson feels disappointed too, because if he doesn't, he'll get his just desserts. What goes around comes around." Phew, what a relief. There was life in the old dog yet.
He has been living it up ever since. His performances at the business end of Wasps' successful Heineken Cup campaign were as good as anything he had delivered since the 2003 World Cup, when an aggressive approach to scrummaging duties and an unnaturally high front-rower's tackle count established him as the outstanding tight-head prop in the tournament, and after sitting out the make-do-and-mend tour of South Africa – those European commitments spared him the torment of taking on the Springboks with one hand tied behind his back – he marked his return to Test duty by leading England to a 60-point victory over Wales at Twickenham last month.
Happy days, then? "It's the thing I used to daydream about when I was a young player, working on the family farm down in Cornwall," he said recently, during the most relentless days of the pre-tournament training camp. "Then, it was all about playing for England. That was the ultimate. To be asked to captain my country in World Cup year...well, it's special. Very, very special."
This will be his third tournament. He has been hard done by in terms of orthopaedic calamity: those three bouts of back trouble, all of them in the career-threatening category, can be set alongside a serious neck condition and a blow-out fracture of the eye socket. There was also a busted forearm, but in comparison to the other problems, this was a mere wasp sting amid the snake bites. As recently as last month, when England played a final warm-up game against the French in Marseille, he ran into the substantial frame of his club colleague Simon Shaw and left the field on a stretcher, heavily concussed.
In 1999, he was only seven caps into his international career when the tournament began, and four of those had been won on the so-called "tour from hell" in the summer of the previous year, when the then undecorated Clive Woodward travelled to the southern hemisphere with a powder-puff squad and was promptly dusted all over Australia, New Zealand and, to a less embarrassing degree, South Africa. Yet when it came to squaring up to the All Blacks and Springboks in pursuit of the Webb Ellis Cup, the 23-year-old was considered an automatic selection.
A Lions tour of Australia followed – first choice again – before injury struck him down. When England won the Grand Slam in 2003, he was nowhere to be seen. Julian White, that great ogre of a scrummaging tight head, and Robbie Morris, a promising forward who turned out to be rather less ogreish than he had initially pretended, played in the first three games before Jason Leonard moved across the front row for the final 40-point romps against Scotland and Ireland. It was not until the second of that summer's Tests in the Antipodes, against the Wallabies in Melbourne, that Vickery recaptured his place in the starting line-up. From there on in, he started every match bar one in the march to the title. The exception? The Samoa game, which he started on the bench but helped salvage from the wreckage with a top-notch scrummaging display and an important late try.
Call it instinct. Very few tight-head props cross the opposition line more than once in a blue moon, and Vickery would be the last person to describe himself as prolific, but he has a happy knack of threatening the opposition line. Last November, he saved Andy Robinson's job as England coach, albeit temporarily, by completing the winning score against the Springboks at Twickenham. Last month at the same venue, he would have inflicted something similar on the French but for a tackle by Dimitri Szarzewski, the visiting hooker, that may well come to be seen as one of the half-dozen best of the professional era. As recently as last week, Vickery was unable to fathom how the five points eluded him.
Rather like his celebrated predecessor Martin Johnson, who led the team in 2003, Vickery prefers not to talk when he can get away with silence. Certainly, he draws the curtains on himself when he is struggling with injury. But when he does talk, he is often rib-achingly funny. After one English victory in Paris, he reduced his audience to a state of comic helplessness by analysing proceedings in language so profoundly blue that he made Joe Pesci sound like Earl Mountbatten. Even in the most formal surroundings, he tends to let the odd curse slip through his lips.
Can he possibly take hold of the England team and drag them a few steps up the hill, as Johnson famously did? Brian Ashton, whose first act in succeeding Robinson was to award Vickery the captaincy, believes he is precisely the right man to make a stab at emulation. He values the prop's experience, admires his level-headedness and sets great store by his honesty. As Vickery himself says: "There's a fair bit of pressure on us going into this World Cup, but I'm looking forward to getting stuck into the job, because that's the best way of easing pressure. I'm a 'let's have a go' kind of bloke, basically, so I'd rather be in the thick of it, addressing the problems we face, rather than sitting back thinking about them."
Two things have the potential to stand in his way: those twin terrors, form and fitness. Over the coming weeks, Vickery will have to play at the top of his game to hold off the second tight-head specialist in the England party, Matt Stevens of Bath. The two men have something in common – Stevens, at 24 the younger man by seven years, also knows what it is to suffer a physical breakdown of alarming proportions – but their differences are far more striking. Stevens can cut a centre's angles and throw passes like an outside-half; Vickery is rather more industrial. Stevens has a touch of the artist about him; Vickery has a liberal helping of the warrior spirit. Just at the moment, the captain is the man for a tight corner. Yet there will come a time, possibly at this tournament, when Stevens' new-age skills give him an edge that Ashton will be forced to reflect in selection.
The coach will have to make the change if Vickery breaks down, and there has been precious little evidence since 2003 that he is able to string together a series of hard games. Four years ago, this would not have been a matter of life and death: given the presence of Georgia and Uruguay, two virtual walkovers, in England's group, Woodward could have played his maiden aunt at tight-head prop and emerged with a pair of 60-point victories.
The makeweight sides this time around, Tonga and the United States, will ask more questions of the reigning champions, even if the answers turn out to be straightforward. Ashton knows Tonga, in particular, will hit hard and leave a mark.
For all that, the coach was correct in his choice of captain. Martin Corry, who served under Robinson, seemed tired and careworn at the moment of Ashton's accession; Lawrence Dallaglio was not in the red-rose mix; Jason Robinson was still unsure whether international rugby was an attractive option; Mike Catt and Steve Borthwick were on the fringes of selection. In difficult circumstances, Vickery offered an obvious solution.
Does he enjoy the responsibility? "I enjoy it when we're winning," he said. "Everyone wants to be captain when it's all going to plan, don't they? There's some glory in it when results are good." After a pause for thought, he offered another piece of homespun philosophy. "There's a big thing made of this captaincy lark, but really, there's not much to it apart from a nod of the head and a wag of the finger." Martin Johnson, every bit as reluctant to wax lyrical on the subject of his own virtues, would have agreed with every word.
Red Rose leaders: England's previous World Cup captains
Mike Harrison (1987)
The Yorkshire wing was known as Burglar Bill, in honour of his ability to pinch opponents' passes while they were in flight before scarpering down the field for a try. He did precisely this on his debut against the All Blacks in 1985. Chosen as captain for the inaugural World Cup, he led a side that plumbed the depths in a desperate quarter-final against Wales. After an equally poor performance against the same opponents in the 1988 Five Nations, he was dropped for good.
Will Carling (1991 & 1995)
Carling was the creation of Geoff Cooke, the first all-powerful coach of the England team. Hardly the most creative of centres – Jeremy Guscott, his midfield partner, could wait months for a meaningful pass - there was no doubting the defensive qualities at the heart of his game. His tactics in the '91 final were suspect and he fell out with the rugby establishment by describing the Rugby Football Union as "57 old farts". Some would say he got that bit right.
Martin Johnson (1999 & 2003)
Perhaps the most menacing forward of the professional era, Johnson took on the captaincy when Lawrence Dallaglio, the initial choice, contracted a severe dose of the tabloids before the '99 tournament . England might easily have gone further than the last eight, but were nailed by Jonah Lomu in a pool game before being drop-goaled to death by Jannie de Beer. Johnson was nearing his peak, though. Four years later, he clapped his horrible great mitts around the Webb Ellis Cup.