Hugh Godwin: Man of steel warns of player meltdown

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The healing of the radius fractured by Vickery against Bath last February took longer than he wanted or expected - he missed what would have been his second tour with the British and Irish Lions - but two matches into his comeback he is fit for another West Country hoedown at Bristol in the Premiership this afternoon.

The hosts have surprisingly gained two wins from two so far, but Gloucester have not been beaten either, a draw at Worcester being followed by a gutsy victory at home to Sale. If Vickery has anything to do with it, the latter record will be preserved. "We've had a tough start and gained six points, so all in all we're doing all right," he said.

What Vickery is less happy with is the question of burnout. It may leave some observers cold, but to the Professional Rugby Players' Association it is a burning issue, and since January clubs and players have been responding to surveys from Scott Cresswell, a Kiwi fresh from completing a similar project in his own country.

The study is jointly funded by the RFU and Premier clubs and will take three years to complete - with the first findings due in December - but Vickery has already made up his mind. "You don't need to be a scientist to work out there's too many games being played. You can fill in as many forms as you like, but we're playing for too long with not enough rest periods. People talk about player welfare but ultimately no one gives a shit."

The subject is particularly touchy for Vickery because his good friend and former Gloucester and England team-mate Trevor Woodman was forced into early retirement during the past fortnight.

Sale may be contributing to the audit but a month after it was launched they made Woodman, whom Vickery has known since they were 11-year-old kids in Cornwall, unemployed. The prop's buckled spine was not responding to treatment and the club invoked a clause in his contract allowing severance if a player spends 24 weeks injured. "In some of the contracts at Gloucester it is 13 weeks," said Vickery. "Nice, isn't it?"

It makes Vickery thankful for what he has got, including a well-established clothing range, Raging Bull, and he never forgets that "10 years ago I was milking 100 cows six days a week". But that does not prevent him being concerned at what he sees around him. "Players are earning half what they should be given the sacrifices they're making," he said.

"I've won things with Gloucester and England but I'm one of very few who's had those opportunities. The game is becoming harder and more physical and the potential for injury is growing. It's become a juggernaut, and whether you jump off or not it keeps moving on. We have lads of 21 or 22 having total knee reconstructions or dislocated shoulders. What hope have some of those kids got?"

At 29, the raging bull ought to be prime beef in the front row but, before the broken arm, he missed England's summer tour in 2004 with a bulging disc and has played just twice for his country in 18 months. Eight days ago he locked horns with Woodman's successor for club and country, Andrew Sheridan, and was impressed. "I think he's a great player," said Vickery. "I was disappointed he never got an opportunity with the Lions; he could have made a big impact."

Sheridan's illegal impact on Vickery during a breathless sequence of line-outs in added time helped Gloucester to the penalty try which won them the match. Gloucester's captain, Adam Balding, is out for eight weeks with a triple fracture of the cheekbone, so it was up to Vickery to make the cool decisions in a heated corner of Kingsholm.

"I heard comments that with Sale having two players [Sheridan and Chris Jones] in the sin-bin, we should have gone for a scrum. But Alex Brown was in control of our catch-and-drive, and I remember being part of a six-man scrum with England in New Zealand in 2003 when we came out of it with a win."

New Zealand are among the visitors soon to descend on Twickenham and, with poor Jonny Wilkinson alighting on A for appendix in his seemingly inexhaustible medical dictionary, England's head coach, Andy Robinson, is combing the country for captaincy material. Jason Robinson and Martin Corry have shared the job this year, but Vickery predated them as skipper in Tests against Uruguay at the World Cup and in Argentina in 2002, and in non-cap matches against the New Zealand Maori and, twice, the Barbarians. He would have been captain for the World Cup celebration against the New Zealand Barbarians in December 2003 but - guess what - he was injured.

"If you looked at it sensibly with your head screwed on you'd go away and get educated and get a proper job," said the temporary keeper of Castle Grim. And Woodman? "Trev is living in Cheltenham and looking for work," said Vickery. "I hope some of the people he met on the way up will help him on the way back down."