Vickery recovers to face fiercest rival

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Phil Vickery acknowledged some two months ago that his great rival for the role of England's tight-head prop, Julian White of Leicester, was way ahead of the game. "Julian is number one by a country mile," said the Lions front-rower, who had just resumed active duty for Gloucester after back problems that might have forced a lesser man into retirement.

Since then, White has decimated the Springbok scrum and single-handedly forced Wasps into Heineken Cup retreat. And Vickery? He has been watching all this through his only good eye, after taking a nasty smack in the face during a Premiership match at Kingsholm.

Happily, Vickery is close to his second comeback of the season - so close, indeed, that he may just get a run in the big game of the holiday weekend, in which Gloucester just happen to be hosting a White-enhanced Leicester. "The last few weeks have been hard, especially after the positives of coming back from the previous injury, but this is a big step in the right direction," Vickery said yesterday.

Nigel Melville, the director of rugby at Gloucester, must choose between Vickery, Gary Powell and Terry Sigley in the prop department, and will take a close look at the most experienced member of that trio over the next 24 hours before committing himself. Vickery appears to be guaranteed a place in the match-day squad, however. "It will be great to see him back," Melville said. "Going into the new year, and with so much still to play for, it's good for everyone. I've never seen Phil work as hard as he has done in the last few weeks." The Sunday evening fixture is a sell-out, and could probably have been one twice over.

Leicester will be without the England loose-head prop, Graham Rowntree, who has been struggling with a back ailment for some weeks and needs a break, but have three other internationals - the scrum-half Harry Ellis, the lock Ben Kay and the flanker Lewis Moody - back in their rightful starting places. The contest between Ellis and Andy Gomarsall, who have been scrapping over the No 9 shirt at Test level, should be quite something.

This weekend's programme sees a number of other significant developments on the personnel front. Jonny Wilkinson will start at outside-half for Newcastle against Sale on Sunday, having proved his physical and psychological well-being following a long injury lay-off with some sound appearances off the bench, while Saracens have promoted the supremely sophisticated Thomas Castaignède to their XV for tomorrow's match at Bath. Castaignède replaces Kevin Sorrell in midfield after a marvellous cameo contribution in the drawn game with Harlequins on Boxing Day.

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