Vickery: 'We are not in the top three in Europe now, let alone the world'

Phil Vickery played with Martin Johnson when England ruled the world. Times have changed, the 32-year-old prop tells Chris Hewett. For a start he's lost weight
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Phil Vickery has bucked any number of trends during a career – pleasurable and painful in equal measure – that began at the start of the professional era and may yet encompass a fourth World Cup. He was probably the first tight-head prop to come with a double-digit tackle count as standard and certainly the first to undergo three serious bouts of surgery on his back – not to mention one on his neck and another on his eye socket – without seriously wondering why he was doing what he did for a living. And now? Here's the really flabbergasting bit. A month shy of his 33rd birthday, he is getting thinner, not fatter.

There are cauliflower-faced prop forwards lurking in both of Vickery's natural habitats – the farmlands of Cornwall, where he grew up, and the hills of Cotswold country to which he has returned after a spell living on the outskirts of London – who will regard this as an affront to all right-thinking rugby folk. In days of yore, when men were men and the scrummage was a no-go area for poncey referees with their silly silver whistles, a front-row forward needed a little extra around the waist. It was normal, natural, expected. Who the hell ever heard of a lean prop? More to the point, who the hell wanted one?

It would be stretching a point to describe Vickery as skinny – when he can lift his creaking knees high enough to mount a set of scales, the figure 19st 9lb leaps out at him – but in terms of body fat, or the lack of it, he is in the best shape of his life. Who says so? Graham Rowntree, for one. England's specialist scrum coach played directly against Vickery dozens of times and now works him hard on the training field. He is massively impressed by what he sees.

"Frankly, if you'd asked me 18 months ago whether England would be starting a Test with Phil as a first-choice player, my reply would have been 'probably not'," the former Leicester forward said. "But I'm happy to admit that he's surprised me. What really took me aback just recently was that body-fat count of his. It was thelowest ever. And before you bang on about props needing a bit of ballast, it's balls. If you're carrying excess weight as a professional sportsman, you're being inefficient.

"The fact that Phil is in the condition he is tells you all you need to know about his enthusiasm. He's like an 18-year-old." And still tough? "Tough as they come. A real man." Might it be reasonable, then, to suggest that if some England front-row contenders of relatively recent vintage had been blessed with a touch of Vickery in their make-up, they would have been world-beaters? "Yes, yes, yes," Rowntree responded warmly before pointing to his heart and adding: "This is something no amount of skill can give you, and no amount of money can buy."

Vickery, who long ago knocked Stack Stevens off his perch as the finest of all Cornish props, has turned in some special performances for Wasps just lately, two of them in important Heineken Cup victories over Edinburgh and Leinster. The England selectors are too relieved for words, having lost the one-time captain's only obvious rival from the younger generation, the Bath prop Matt Stevens, to a positive dope test and, subsequently, a public admission of sustained and serious substance abuse that has left his career at the mercy of the disciplinarians. Suddenly, the incumbent is as important to them as he was in 2003, when he contributed so much to the World Cup triumph in Australia.

"My intention," Vickery pronounced, "is to keep going well beyond the end of this season. I'd like to sign for another two years with Wasps, if they'll have me. I love this game – I've always loved it – and when a man is happy in his work, and he has a gem of a wife and two beautiful kids at home as I have, he can achieve so much. I've had my down times, especially when the really bad injuries kicked in; I know what it's like when no one's interested in you any more – when no one phones you, no one asks your opinion and everyone assumes you're finished. I've looked down the barrel, more than once. But the people at Wasps who took a punt on me when everyone thought I was washed up have looked after me in the right way, and as a result of their efforts and my own determination ... well, here I am: still training, still playing, still enjoying life."

Whether he enjoys it to the full at Twickenham this afternoon remains to be seen, for the England scrummagers will find themselves grappling with the most potent set-piece force in the Six Nations.

"Even in the very early days, when they were new to championship rugby, the Italians were a bloody difficult proposition," he said. "But back then, there was always this idea that they'd capitulate if you could just score a try at the right moment. They don't capitulate now. They hang on in there for grim death. People say they haven't got this and that, but the things they do have are top quality. One of those is their scrum."

His direct opponent on this occasion is Salvatore Perugini, born down Naples way and no one's idea of a 7st weakling, but Vickery knows all about the Peruginis of this world, having been educated in the original front-rower's School of Hard Knocks, otherwise known as Kingsholm. Today's Gloucester pack is a far cry from the one he encountered as a teenage apprentice – nowhere near as rough-edged and a lot less ruthless. Had Vickery been making his way in the game now, he would have had an easier time of it. He would also have been half the player.

"When I turned up at Gloucester from Cornwall, I was fifth in line for the tight-head position," he recalled. "The first-teamers – all of them local, all of them suspicious of a foreigner from Bude – wouldn't even speak to me, let alone help me, until I'd shown myself capable of taking the stuff they dished out in training. Basically, it was a case of making the coffees and knowing my place. My first game for the second team was against Bath, who had Dave Hilton and John Mallett in the front row. Lovely. Then I started experiencing life over the bridge in Wales – Newport, Newbridge, Dunvant. That was nice too, especially in the pissing rain. I remember playing Swansea when they had some right criminals in their pack: Garin Jenkins, the Moriarty brothers, all that lot. My only job then was to survive. And I did.

"So when I see a young lad like Steffon Armitage coming into the England side for his first cap, I'm genuinely excited for him. Why? Because I was like him once. I just want him to get out there on the field and do it. He's put the work in and he deserves to be here. The best piece of advice anyone ever gave me came from Phil Blakeway, the old England prop who was a Gloucester legend. He said: 'Son, you'll find rugby gives to you what you give to rugby.'"

If it is difficult to recall a time when Vickery gave less than everything to the England cause, it is because it never happened. For this reason, he still feels uncomfortable with the toxic fallout from Twickenham that has poisoned so much of the red-rose game since the departure of Sir Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning coach, four and a half years ago. He had enormous respect for Andy Robinson, who was sacked in 2006, and was close to Brian Ashton, who went the same way last spring. When questioned on the subject, he squirms in his seat.

"I'm not the sort to go slagging people off, but I'm not frightened to admit to my feelings," he said. "When Andy Robinson came down to Wasps with his Edinburgh side the other week, it saddened me. Why? Because I immediately got to thinking about what a top bloke he is and how much he put into my game while he was with England. And Brian? He's a fantastic coach. Always was, always will be. But what's done is done. The thing now is to get England moving again, because we have to face up to the fact that we aren't in the top three in the northern hemisphere at the moment, let alone top three in the world.

"We simply have to start picking off some of these teams that are beating us – the Celts especially, because it's so long since we won in Dublin or Cardiff or Edinburgh. All being well, I'll be involved at the Millennium Stadium next weekend. It's one of the great places to play rugby. And I'm keen to get back to Croke Park and have a go at the Irish. The previous time we went there, we went down by more than 40 points. Now, there's losing, and there's losing like that. I don't mind being beaten in a tight game by some flash of inspiration: under those circumstances, you hold up your hands and say 'fair enough'. But the Croke Park defeat was unacceptable. We can't have that happen to us ever again."