Nooval-ball strategist has ever calculated the number of attacking possibilities that exist on a rugby field; to do so, he would need the mind of a chess grand master and a blackboard the size of Twickenham. For every straight passing manoeuvre, there is a miss-move; for every "one out" call, there is a "one in" variation; for every scissors operation, there is a dummy scissors or a double-dummy scissors; for every ultra-complicated back-line exercise – England once had a favourite called the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" – there is a bog-standard overlap. But this much is certain: none of these brainwaves count for a bean without a solid scrum.
When push comes to shove and grunt comes to groan, rugby matches are decided in the darkened recesses of the set-piece. Indeed, last week's second Test between Australia and the British Isles boiled down to a single second-half scrummage, which not only left a humiliated Lions pack on its collective backside but also led directly to Joe Roff's decisive try in the left corner. And when a scrum goes pear-shaped to that degree, questions tend to be asked of the man occupying the most physically demanding and, many aficionados would argue, the single most important position on the paddock: the tight-head prop.
The Lions tight head is, and was always going to be, Phil Vickery: a man of Devon (he was born in Barnstaple), of Cornwall (the family farm is in the north of the county, near Bude), and of Gloucestershire (he is the latest in an almost Biblical line of Kingsholm props to have made the grade at international level). Like any good tiller of the soil, he does not mince his words. Listen to him on the subject of last week's trauma at the Colonial Stadium: "We were complacent, I think; we went out there with the idea that we were world-beaters. Well, the Wallabies put us right on that one, didn't they? So it's been down to brass tacks this week – work, work and more work. There have been a fair few scrums in training and, while it has been difficult to take at the end of an 11-month season, not one of us has complained. We brought it on ourselves, you see."
These last six weeks or so have been anything but straightforward for the Lions scrummagers, who arrived in Australia as potential series winners. In the early matches, notably those in Queensland, the local opposition avoided serious set-piece contact like the plague: during the game against the Reds at Ballymore, the Scot Tom Smith told Martin Johnson and Danny Grewcock to stop pushing from the second row, because he was propping against thin air. Then, in Gosford, Jason Leonard and David Young were penalised to high heaven by the New Zealand referee Paul Honiss, who fell hook, line and sinker for the chicanery of the born-awkward New South Walian tight head, Rod Moore.
When Moore was called into the Australian side for the second Test following the demise of the ineffective Glenn Panoho, the Lions management immediately smelled a rat. Graham Henry, the head coach, described the newcomer as "an irritation", and did his best to alert the Test officials to what he considered a deliberate Wallaby attempt to remove the heat from the set-piece. As it turned out, Moore played particularly well in Melbourne. So too did Nick Stiles, the inexperienced Queenslander on the loose head. The Wallabies attacked the Lions in the tourists' area of greatest strength, and pulled off a spectacular coup.
"I didn't know quite what to expect when I came here," admitted Vickery. "In some ways, the tour of South Africa four years ago must have been easier to assess in advance, purely because of the historic importance of the scrum in Springbok rugby. When the Lions travelled in '97, everyone said: 'Watch out, suckers; Os du Randt is going to stamp all over you.' The boys took that as an incentive, and worked out a way of using the strength of the Springbok scrum to their own advantage. It's not like that here. The Wallabies have a reputation as a great all-round side, but not as a great scrummaging unit.
"And quite honestly, some of the scrummaging down here borders on pantomime. If I had to scrum like some of the Australians, I wouldn't bother. You long to say: 'Come on, let's see what you've got. This is a game of rugby, not a tea party.' But there is no point in whingeing, and anyway, I wouldn't take anything from the Wallaby front row we confronted last week. They'd changed their personnel, done their homework and settled on a plan of action that worked well for them. Fair dues, and all that.
"There was a great deal of talk before the Tests about the weakness of the Australian front row, but you don't win World Cups and Tri-Nations titles without a proud pack of forwards. I have no doubt that the bad-mouthing fuelled them. I also think they drew strength from the presence of Michael Foley at hooker. I rate Foley. He's a good set-piece man, a hard nut and he tightened up their act to great effect. If we're going to win this decider, we'll have to deal with him."
It is reasonable to suggest that Vickery has never played a game of senior rugby in what might politely be termed a conciliatory pack. If he is not quite in the grand tradition of Gloucester tight forwards – he habitually makes more tackles in a single match than Lions predecessors like Phil Blakeway and Mike Burton managed in a season – his heart and soul are in precisely the right place. "You don't go backwards at Kingsholm, unless you want the blokes in The Shed on your case," he agreed. Likewise, he has won his 21 England caps as part of the most ruthless red rose pack in a generation. Needless to say, events in Melbourne came as a shock to the system.
"This Lions business is so big that every emotion is extreme. When you win, as we did in Brisbane, you're the happiest bloke in the world. When things go tits-up, as they did last week, it hurts more than you can imagine. Rugby at this level is a personal challenge, and you beat yourself over the head about this or that aspect of your game. My tackle count in Melbourne was desperate; for the first time in many moons, I failed to hit double figures. I've spoken to Phil Larder [the Lions defensive coach] and it won't happen again. Then there was the line-out, another basic phase in which we let ourselves down. I buggered it up on a couple of occasions, simply because someone changed the call and I either wasn't listening or couldn't hear because of the crowd noise.
"So what do you do? Sulk, or get it sorted? There is only one answer, and we've just put in a really good week's work on the fundamentals of forward play. We've had our heart-to-heart sessions, we've been honest with each other and we've agreed that this game is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an opportunity that is worthy of everything you can throw at it. If we play to our potential and lose, I'll be the first to hold out my hand and congratulate the opposition. If we mess it up again, all this will have been a pointless exercise. And that really will upset me."
Whatever the outcome, Vickery's feet will be firmly planted on terra firma this time next week. "I phoned my father on the farm, just to let him know how things were, and he asked me when I was coming home. I told him I had a couple of bills to pay in Gloucester, and that I'd be down in Cornwall towards the end of next week. 'Brilliant,' he said. 'Just in time to help me with the silage.' So there it hangs. I've just played rugby for 11 months, and I'll be starting my holiday knee-deep in you know what. It's a wonderful world, isn't it?"Reuse content