Phil Vickery: The long journey from farm boy to world champion
Saturday 31 January 2004
The bar at Kingsholm, shabby but atmospheric home of Gloucester Rugby Football Club. A notice advises punters that the bar closes four hours after the final whistle, as if to warn them that there might not quite be time to get in any really serious drinking.
At a corner table, Phil Vickery's mobile phone gives a single bleep, signifying a message. The huge Cornishman with the epic cauliflower ears glances at it casually, as cool as a cucumber. He'd make a hell of a greengrocer. His nonchalance is impressive because it is early Wednesday afternoon, around the time that Sir Clive Woodward is due to announce the new England rugby union captain.
"Don't you think," I say, nodding at the phone, "that it might be Clive?"
"It might," he says, "and it might not." They breed 'em philosophical in Cornwall. "I'm really not bothered. Whatever. I have a great relationship with Clive and his wife. They've been fantastic to me, and I'll support them in any way I can."
As it turns out, of course, Woodward's captaincy call goes to Lawrence Dallaglio. But there are still those, among them the former England captain Will Carling, who think that despite his dire injury record, it should have been the 27-year-old tight-head prop forward. The following day I call Vickery - who has led his country before, against Argentina two years ago - to see if I can discern the slightest pang of disappointment.
"Hand on heart, I'm not disappointed," he says. "All I want to do is play for England. And Lawrence will do the job brilliantly."
Whatever. And anyway, with or without the bestowal of the England captaincy, this has been a fine week for Vickery. Last Saturday, after weeks out with a rib injury, he played a full part in his club's Heineken Cup victory over Bourgoin. And on Thursday the man they call Raging Bull was formally awarded with the Freedom of the City of Gloucester, which gives him the right to drive his cattle through the city centre, no small privilege for a dairy farmer's son.
All he needs now to complete a memorable seven days is for Gloucester to beat Treviso in this afternoon's final Heineken Cup pool match; progress to the quarter-finals depends on it.
"Everyone's already talking about who we should be playing in the quarters," he says disapprovingly. "But it will be a tough, tough game against Treviso. We were behind out there for the majority of the game, and Sinbad, James Simpson-Daniel, just managed to squeak over at the end to get a bonus point. Treviso pushed Munster all the way last week. They're a capable team, difficult to break down, and they will come here and know all the pressure is on us. But at the same time, it would be unthinkable not to do it on home ground."
Home ground, Kingsholm, is as sacred to Vickery as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to a committed Christian. "It's unique," he says. "It's difficult to put into words what this club has given me. I came here as a 19-year-old herdsman from Cornwall, was given a car to drive around in, was looked after, and from that to the England caps, the British Lions, the World Cup... fantastic."
He shakes his huge head at the wonder of it all. After all, it is only eight years since he was that teenage herdsman from Cornwall, grappling with dislocation to the city. "There were lots of times in that first couple of years when I nearly drove back down the M5," he says. "It was a big thing leaving the family farm, my God."
His grandfather had bought the 350-acre farm when his parents got married. He was expected to take it over in due course, until scrummages started mattering more to him than silage. He still misses the rural way of life, though. "I fly the flag for them as much as I can," he says, and eyeing me evenly, as though daring me to contradict him, adds: "I think they're getting ripped off."
The next time Britain's farmers take their grievances to Westminster, they could do worse than stick a protest placard in his ham-like fist and place Vickery at the head of the march. Not that he's anyone's patsy or anyone's fool. He may have left Bude Haven comprehensive at 16 to become a herdsman, may have spent the last eight years driving his head at other men built like barns, but there is an intelligence and dignity about him that, if not now, may yet help to make him captain of England. To say nothing of his fierce patriotism, manifest in the bulldog tattoo on his right shoulder.
"I'm proud of being Cornish," he says, "proud of being here at Gloucester, and very proud of being English, of representing my country and my Queen, and singing that song."
I ask whether he hung out with Prince Harry much during the World Cup? "It disappointed me," he says quietly, "that everyone made a big deal of him being there for the World Cup. That guy's been around England changing rooms ever since I started playing international rugby, but people tried to make out he'd jumped on the bandwagon. He's a great bloke. He won't remember me but I'll remember him."
There is still much to discuss about the World Cup, notably the penalties Vickery and his fellow-prop Trevor Woodman incurred in the final, a controversy which rumbles on despite England's glorious victory. We'll come to that, but he hasn't yet finished describing his love affair with Gloucester.
"Tom Walkinshaw [the owner of Gloucester RFC and of the now-defunct Arrows Formula One team] has been bloody great to me, even through his own ups and downs. And the supporters here are amazing. There's nothing else here, it's rugby or go somewhere else. Professionalism has brought a certain ruthlessness - players coming in and moving out - but everyone here recognises the passion they have to have to play for Gloucester. We're not a particularly well-liked club, and we're not fashionable, but I couldn't give a shit, to be honest."
There are lots of things, in fact, about which he could give neither "a shit" nor "a flying *****". One is the suggestion that, while a fantastic, inspirational player in the loose, he is technically flawed in the scrum.
"I don't know anyone who's a complete player,' he says phlegmatically.
"I don't give a flying **** what anyone thinks, I know there's room for improvement in all areas of my game... line-out lifting, scrummaging, reading the game, handling skills. I've got to keep improving because everyone else is."
I invite him to share with me the technical requirements of propping at No 3. He snorts. "We could sit here for three ******* weeks," he says.
"I will say that it pisses me off when people say it [his scrummaging] isn't going very well. I'm reliant on seven other guys, as seven other guys are reliant on me. If one little cog is not working right, it's not always my fault. A scrum is an eight-man effort, and if those buggers aren't doing their work I get made to look a prat. I'm relying on the guy next to me, on the guys pushing up my arse, the guy on the outside, and sometimes you come up against an opposition doing things differently, maybe illegally, or different referees with different interpretations. So many things make a difference which you've not got a hell of a lot of control over."
Which brings us to the World Cup final, and Andre Watson's enigmatic whistle-blowing.
"I was penalised for boring in towards the hooker," Vickery recalls. "I said to him at the time that it was a fair call, but I'd spent 60 minutes of the game looking at their tight-head's head somewhere under Steve Thompson's legs and nothing being done about it. I don't care if referees make wrong decisions, as long as they make wrong decisions for both sides.
"We were in total and utter confusion. Technically he was probably right, but it still mystifies me that we went through the whole tournament, scrumming really well, giving away just one scrum penalty, and all of a sudden we were penalised like that in the final."
Ah well. At least he has a World Cup winner's medal to show for his mystification, a trinket that he can hardly have expected when he made his Five Nations debut, at Twickenham against Wales, in 1998. That was the first Five Nations of the Woodward era, and Vickery recalls his shock at the leap required, both mental and physical, in graduating from club to international rugby.
"You can't prepare for it, and at the end of the day you can only handle it through experience. You can't expect to be mollycoddled, you just have to have the confidence that if you're there it's because people think you're good enough. But it's not until you come out of it, whether through injury or whatever, that you realise how lucky you are to be a part of it.
"Clive has set standards some people only dream of. And yet only 12 months ago some people were trying to get him out. What a load of crap!"
I ask Vickery what impact the loss of Martin Johnson will have on the England team? He says that Johnson was a lacklustre captain, frankly, who won't be greatly missed.
Oh all right, he doesn't. "Martin going was a very, very sad day for English rugby," he says. "He can't ever be replaced. But if you look around the country, at Alex Brown here, at Tom Palmer, at Steve Borthwick, there's some exceptional talent. And Clive is great at getting people involved.
"Borthers has been around the squad for a long time and so have plenty of others, even if they haven't really played yet. They know how it works and they know what's expected."
Like other members of Woodward's inner sanctum, Vickery talks about the England squad as if it were a Masonic or religious brotherhood.
"The Six Nations will be very difficult for us because everyone will want a piece of the world champions," he says. "But we've all had faith and we've all bought into it [by which he means Woodward's ethos]. And when you have 30 guys who all buy into something... that's makes us very difficult to beat.
"It wasn't just England, though, who did Northern hemisphere rugby a load of good in the World Cup. Ireland did really well and came within a point or whatever of beating Australia. Scotland and Wales showed glimpses of what they can do. That myth of Southern hemisphere invincibility has fallen by the wayside. And it was pretty powerful. I was on the 'Tour of Hell' in '98. I've been on the end of a few spankings."
It is hard verging on impossible, looking at Vickery's colossal form taking up most of a two-man Kingsholm sofa, to imagine him on the end of any kind of spanking. Has he, I wonder, ever felt intimidated on the rugby field?
"Course," he says. "Last week we had 10,000 French people spitting at us. That's intimidating. But it doesn't stop you giving your all. In my second or third Test I was up against Craig Dowd, Olo Brown and Norm Hewitt [the New Zealand front row]. I'd watched them on telly for years and I was almost in awe. Then Hewitt went off, Brown moved to hooker and some other big lump came on. And when they know you're inexperienced they'll try things. But that's the same in any job. It's the same with you. If you're interviewing someone who says 'piss off, I'm not answering that', then you'll say 'fine, we'll move on'. Because you're experienced. If it's only your first or second interview, you'd go to pieces."
It's a good analogy, I say, except that the guy confronting me is not usually a monster of 19 stone who makes Desperate Dan look like Wayne Sleep.
"But that's what I do," says Vickery, with a smile. "It's easy for me to get lumps kicked out of me, because I kick lumps out of them."
Phil Vickery life and times
1976 Born near Bude in Cornwall
1991 Represents England U16
1994 Represents England Colts
1995 Persuaded by Richard Hill to join Gloucester RFC. Makes debut against London Irish
1996-97 England U21 and Colts debut
Feb 1998 England debut v Wales after 34 first-team games for Gloucester and only 81 days after England A debut
April 1999 Recovers from a neck injury to play in the World Cup in Wales
2000 Shoulder injury stops puts an end to his chances of touring South Africa
2001 Wins places on British Lions tour of Australia where he appears in all three Tests
2002 Captains the unfancied young England Test side to victory against Argentina in Buenos Aires
2003 Kept out of the 2003 Six Nations by a back injury
Nov 2003 World Cup winner with victorious England squad in Australia. Appointed an MBE
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