Phil Vickery is not a saint. Not quite. Last Wednesday night in Durban, he trundled agriculturally onto the King's Park pitch – even in his youthful pomp, there was something of the Cornish clodhopper about him – and spent eight joyous minutes clattering into rucks and mauls before trundling off again, a yellow card at his back and an overly-theatrical expression of wide-eyed innocence on his face.
"At the very best, that was reckless," he was told by the referee, Jonathan Kaplan, who had spotted him applying a boot to a South African who had taken up a horizontal position wholly offensive to all right-thinking front-row forwards.
The following morning at training, the Lions' forwards coach Warren Gatland revisited the incident with considerable verbal force, tearing filthy great strips off Vickery for his indiscipline. A short while later, the management told him he would be leading the side in today's important game with Western Province at Newlands, one of the grandest stadiums in world rugby. There was nothing incongruous or contradictory about this decision. Gatland spent enough time in the thick of it during his own playing career to understand how hard it is to be a saint at the sharp end, and anyway, the front row has its own code of conduct. An angelic prop is no prop at all.
Yet when the finest tight-head specialists of the modern era come to be assessed, Vickery will surely be counted among the least malicious. Yes, he left a stain on his own England debut by clouting the Welsh flanker Colin Charvis at Twickenham and getting himself cited; yes, he brought down Paul Emerick, the American centre, with a knee-high hack straight out of the Norman Hunter self-help guide to aggressive defence during the last World Cup and earned himself a suspension.
He can describe a game in pure Anglo-Saxon more fluently than any of his peers – one famous description of a goal-line stand against the French in Paris would have qualified him for a stint on "Derek and Clive (Live)" – and, as the Chinese legend on one of his tattoos suggests, he will fight anyone to the finish.
But few players are more revered, partly because of his extraordinary physical resilience – three back operations, one neck operation, a fractured eye-socket and a busted forearm would have seen off most sportsmen, even those who dedicate themselves to this unusually brutal game – and partly because of his generosity of spirit. That generosity shines through as he discusses the honour of being asked to captain the Lions and the respect he feels for the South African rugby animal.
"Twelve years ago, when the Lions were last in this country and won the Test series, I was a young player making his way in the game," he says. "I watched bits and pieces of it on television without fully understanding the enormity of it, but like most young props, I'd been an ardent supporter of Os du Randt [the folk-hero Springbok loose head] since seeing him play in the World Cup a couple of years earlier. Then, in 2007, I played against him in the World Cup final and lost. Disappointed as I was, I still felt happy for him – proud for him, in fact – when he picked up his winner's medal that night in Paris. And when I saw him after a game the other day, I gave him a big hug. It just goes to show what a silly old sentimental sod I am."
Vickery is 33 now. More or less everyone thought he was washed up at 30, but the "everyone" did not include Ian McGeechan, who had taken over as director of rugby at Wasps and signed him from Gloucester, despite a mass of medical evidence that suggested he was crackers even to consider it. "I remember sitting at the press conference, next to poor old Chris Wright [the Wasps owner], who kept on being asked whether it wasn't a big gamble to be taking me on," he says. "And I'm thinking: 'They're right. It is'. But if you're lucky enough to play at a club where people have your best interests at heart and want you to do well, anything can happen. They've been unbelievable, these last three or four years: titles with Wasps, lots more caps, the England captaincy at a World Cup and now this. Hand on heart, I never saw another Lions tour coming. It's wonderful."
McGeechan is not in the least sentimental. He can do the nostalgia bit as well as any triumphant old Lion of 1970s vintage, but a professional coach does not taste success as often as the Scot without having a ruthless streak somewhere, however well disguised it might be.
He did not pick Vickery for this tour because he saved his bacon in 2006 and enjoyed the feeling. He picked him because he felt he was right – exactly right – for a senior role in a freshly-assembled squad facing the not inconsiderable challenge of mounting a credible challenge to the reigning world champions in the space of a month.
"Phil is so good around the group," McGeechan explains. "He has this buzz about him. He'll talk to anyone and everyone, make them feel positive about themselves, while all the time setting the right standards as a leader. We all know he's been through a lot with injuries, but I can't fault his enthusiasm. You can see from the way he trains how much this means to him. It's like he's become young again."
These Lions are fortunate indeed to have Vickery to turn to in what feels and smells like an hour of need. This afternoon's match with Western Province is, the prop admits, "very dangerous for the tour," by which he means that defeat here, a week shy of the first Test against the Boks, could shatter confidence, undermine morale and even threaten the sense of unity in the squad.
"We've been slowly building towards the Test series over the last couple of weeks, winning our matches and developing our style of play," he says. "But arriving here in Cape Town, seeing so many people at the airport, receiving all the text messages wishing us luck, knowing that the red army of supporters are on their way... the risk is that some of us will start thinking about the Springboks too early, when there are still a couple of provincial games to go. Of all the teams we face outside of the Tests, this lot will be the most close-knit, the most together. It's my job to ensure no one gets carried away with the peripherals.
"Captaincy is not something a player should go looking for, but now I've been asked, I feel hugely honoured. The thing is, I don't want to be a part of the first Lions side to lose on this tour, and I certainly don't want to be captain of it. We have to go hell for leather today, because the reality is that when the Test side is named, there are going to be a hell of a lot of terribly disappointed people. Speaking personally, I have this chance to make sure I'm not one of them – that my name is on the team-sheet when Ian makes his choices.
"At the same time, though, I want to enjoy this trip. A Lions tour is a little like playing in a World Cup: you're living in this very small bubble, cocooned in an environment where the most trivial things tend to become very big problems. If you can't step back and see it for what it is, you won't appreciate the experience as you should.
"Back in 2001, when the Lions lost to the Wallabies, it was a terrible disappointment. But when I look back on it now, I regard it as a fantastic trip. If you're going to be bitter about all the things that don't go your way over the course of a career..." There was no need for elaboration.
Back in 1997, another highly popular, deeply respected English prop – Jason Leonard of Harlequins and the world – came to South Africa with the Lions and played the back-slapping, gee-'em-up role so central to the success of a tour of this nature. Leonard understood the crushing dismay of those not picked for the elite team, because he was one of the players left out. Yesterday. McGeechan agreed that Vickery was 2009's version of "good old Jase".
There may, however, prove to be one significant difference. While Leonard, a hot favourite for the Test berth before departure, was nudged aside by Paul Wallace, the awkward little Irish scrummager, Vickery is in a good position to make the cut. One strong performance today could clinch it for him. Just so long as he keeps his boots to himself.
Big Phil: Fact file
*Born 14 March 1976
*England caps 71
*Lions tours 2001 (3 appearances), 2009 (1 appearance)
*Honours 2003 World Cup, 2007 Premiership, Heineken CupReuse content