Vickery fearless in the face of All Blacks' might

Johnson's younger players can look to England's grand old prop for inspiration
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The Independent Online

England have two choices at Twickenham this afternoon: they can engage the Grand Slam-hunting All Blacks in a street fight, as they did under Andy Robinson in 2005, when they lost by a gnat's crotchet; or they can pussyfoot around, as they did under the same coach a year later, when they lost by a distance.

The pessimists – and there are plenty of them – fear that while Martin Johnson's players are not physically equipped to take the first approach, they are all too equipped mentally to do the latter. If that turns out to be the case, today could be very messy indeed.

It is as well, under the circumstances, that Phil Vickery is still a part of the red-rose operation. The grand old West Country prop may be in his 33rd year and held together by the surgical equivalent of masking tape, but he is a beacon of light in the darkness – the very embodiment of the "up and at 'em" spirit. England would ideally have 15 Vickerys for this final round of a fraught autumn series. They must make do with one.

"You can't argue against the fact that we're underdogs," said the tight-head prop and former captain yesterday. "Not after the beating we took from South Africa last weekend. But we put 50 points past the Springboks in 2002, and where are they now? They're world champions. It just goes to show what can be achieved and it's important for us to remember it, because there's so much doom and gloom at the moment – such a noose around our necks. When the younger players ask me if things will always be this bad, I say: 'They will if you don't do something about it.' Yes, these are the benchmark opponents in world rugby. But unless your ambition is to just amble through life doing nothing much, you have to be excited by the challenge they present."

Still excited after all these years? After two World Cup finals, a Lions tour and a Six Nations clean sweep, not to mention titles with Gloucester and Wasps? It is to Vickery's considerable credit that he can summon such enthusiasm. Whether he is able to convince his colleagues that this is a fixture to savour, rather than avoid like the plague, is another matter entirely. Some of them were utterly bemused by the scale of the defeat a week ago and are still unsure as to how and why it happened. They had better be sure about things today. Or else.

England have found themselves in difficulties against the silver fern on many occasions, but this feels different somehow. It is not stretching the point in the slightest to suggest that a coach picking a composite side from today's teams would choose all 15 New Zealanders with barely a second's thought. Even Sir Clive Woodward's 2005 Lions, utterly outclassed as they were, might have sneaked Ryan Jones into a combined line-up. Johnson's team could not hope to provide that many.

"We know this is a tall order," the manager acknowledged. "How many Tests have the All Blacks lost in the British Isles? Not many. It's my job, and that of the coaches, to put some confidence back into our players, to impress on them the importance of being in the game after 20 minutes, at half-time and after an hour. When things go wrong, as they will, we have to respond; when they score, we have to score next. If we're in touch with New Zealand in the final quarter, we'll see how things develop from there. It's about taking small steps towards something big."

One very large step for England would be an improvement in performance at the breakdown, which would automatically lead to the delivery of quick ball – the oxygen on which their attacking strategy depends. For all the home team's problems elsewhere, with the scrum and the kicking game and defensive errors that would not look out of place amongst the Old Rubberduckians minis on a wet Sunday morning in mid-January, the failure to provide quality possession from the ruck is the most urgent.

"This is not a whinge and I'm not bagging the referees we've had so far, but the way the breakdown is controlled in the Premiership is different to how we're seeing it at international level," Johnson said. "It's vital that we get up to speed. In English club rugby, officials are very strict on the tackler moving away from the ball. Things have not been so strict over the last couple of weeks."

He would have been equally justified in saying that England's ball-carriers have finished a distant second to their opponents in making ground through the heavy traffic and giving their colleagues some targets to hit. The ruck is a dynamic situation: players find it far easier to take control if they arrive on their own terms – at the right speed, and at the optimum body angle – rather than those of their opponents.

Think of Stephen Moore and Nathan Sharpe of Australia, or John Smit and Bakkies Botha of South Africa. Now think of their English rivals. The similarities are not immediately obvious.

Given that the All Blacks are doing virtually everything better than everyone else, as they always do in non-World Cup years, there will be no respite this afternoon. Tony Woodcock is the best loose-head prop England will face this autumn, Richie McCaw (left) the best open-side flanker, Rodney So'oialo the best No 8.

And that's just the forwards. Outside the scrum, only the Southland half-back Jimmy Cowan might be described as less than extremely threatening. Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu make up the sport's outstanding wing pairing, Conrad Smith is a thinking man's superstar at outside centre, Daniel Carter is... well, Daniel Carter.

Asked how his side would address the All Blacks' ceremonial haka, Johnson said: "It's more important to get the start of the match right than have a good haka." The worry must be that the haka will be the high point of England's afternoon.