Maori mettle detector for Vickery

England on tour: Gloucester talisman faces a tough physical as he tries to put injury and a loss of form behind him
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The Independent Online

It was, in the time-honoured phrase of sporting folk around the world, a good game to miss. On a star-crossed southern night in Rotorua almost exactly five years ago, England were laughed out of town - the locals claimed they had not witnessed anything quite so funny in decades - after leaking nine tries and 62 points to the New Zealand Maori, then the most formidable non-international team in world rugby.

Tony Diprose, brave to the point of insanity, looked as though he had been involved in a car crash; Richard Pool-Jones left the stadium on crutches; and Alex King appeared in dire need of psychiatric help. The retreat from Moscow had nothing on this.

Phil Vickery was one of the men who missed it, for the excellent reason that England needed him in one piece for a Test with the All Blacks in Auckland four days later, and he has been thanking the Good Lord ever since. He remembers the detail in all its grisliness, however. How could he forget, having watched his mates being stretched out on the rack?

"It wasn't very enjoyable," he confessed yesterday. "From a personal point of view, that tour was a fantastic experience. From a rugby point of view, the results spoke for themselves. The blokes who took the field against the Maori were beaten by a fantastic team." So fantastic that Clive Woodward, the England coach, now describes the fixture as a "mismatch".

"Given the combination of depth, quality and passion that the Maori bring to their rugby, they won't be too different this time," Vickery went on.

This time being tomorrow, in New Plymouth. Had Woodward scoured the planet for a more difficult means of opening England's three-match tour of New Zealand and Australia, he would have drawn a blank. The Maori were not at the peak of their powers last season - they lost three of their four games, which was three more than they lost between 1994 and 2001 - but they were still good enough to run Australia's first-choice Test side to within four points in Perth. This term, they have already put 40-odd points past Tonga and have armed themselves with a couple of rather useful players in Taine Randell and Christian Cullen. Tonga are far from brilliant, as they demonstrated in drawing with a New Zealand Divisional XV in Napier yesterday, but Randell and Cullen are as top-drawer as they come.

As are the likes of Rico Gear, the threatening Auckland Blues centre, and Brad Fleming, a central figure in New Zealand's Commonwealth Games-winning seven-a-side outfit. The Maori are further blessed with Dave Gibson, a star turn as Auckland's scrum-half in last month's Super 12 final, and a pair of All Black props in Greg Feek and Carl Hayman. They might also have fielded one of the most potent young flankers of his generation, the "Tauranga Tearaway" Dan Braid, but for a lively little controversy surrounding his Maori credentials, which were far from obvious to those who know about these things. Suddenly, Braid is out of the picture.

If Vickery fails to punch his weight tomorrow, he too will find himself on the outside looking in. Commonly bracketed with Pieter de Villiers of France as the best tight-head prop around, the Gloucester captain finds himself off the pace after months of injury and a couple of miserable outings at Twickenham, where the Barbarians beat his England XV with something to spare and Wasps marmalised his club side on Premiership Grand Final day. A fit and feisty Vickery is among the first names on Woodward's Test team sheet, so we can assume he is short on both counts right now.

"The Test selection is a matter for Clive," he said, reluctant to be seen pushing his own case for inclusion against the All Blacks next weekend, or even against the Wallabies in Melbourne in 13 days' time. "You take what you're given in this game, especially when you miss great chunks of a season through injury. When I had surgery to correct the problem with my back, I wasn't at all sure I would make this tour. Under the circumstances, I'm pleased and relieved to be here, and grateful to be given the responsibility of leading an England side against opponents as strong as the Maori. I can't look past this game; none of us can. If it doesn't go well in New Plymouth, none of us will be in contention for the Test team."

Vickery knows what it is to front up as England's captain in one of those environments euphemistically described as "challenging"; indeed, it is only a year since he led a profoundly inexperienced side containing five new caps to a victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires that Woodward still cherishes as a defining moment of his own stewardship. But the Maori, in their own North Island heartland? "Well, it won't be easy," said the prop softly. "Not easy at all."