Vickery relishing return to front line

Gloucester's prop is pressing for a return to international rugby union with England
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The Independent Online

Had they been in full possession of their faculties, the badged and blazered denizens of rugby's governing class might have arrived at the conclusion that 21st century professional union is faced with a serious health and safety problem without the aid of a treatise on the subject by a team of academics. All they needed to do was ask someone like Phil Vickery, the Gloucester and England prop, for a considered view from the front line.

Had they been in full possession of their faculties, the badged and blazered denizens of rugby's governing class might have arrived at the conclusion that 21st century professional union is faced with a serious health and safety problem without the aid of a treatise on the subject by a team of academics. All they needed to do was ask someone like Phil Vickery, the Gloucester and England prop, for a considered view from the front line.

"Surgery is no big deal these days; to be honest, it's a way of life," the 24-year-old Devonian said during a red rose get-together in Surrey this week. "I think we had 12 pre-season operations at Gloucester during the summer, and the figures are bound to go up year on year because of the number of big games we're all playing. My own case wasn't too serious, just a bit of wear and tear on my shoulder joint and a spot of tendon damage. I wasn't at all concerned, apart from the fact that it kept me off the summer tour of South Africa; it was a keyhole job, as straightforward as it comes."

So that's all right, then. Vickery, the most powerful and imposing young prop thrown up by the English system since a teenage Jason Leonard first poked his head above the East End parapet in the late 1980s, is growing so used to life under anaesthetic that he will soon be able to collapse a scrum in his sleep. Never mind that, like the venerable Leonard himself, the "raging bull" of Kingsholm broke down with neck problems within a year of winning his first cap; that at the ridiculously young age of 22, he spent every waking moment wondering whether he would ever play his chosen sport again. This millennial generation of career rugger-buggers now operate, if you will pardon the choice of word, on the basis of a surgeon a day keeping the bank manager at bay. Sadly, some of them will pay through their broken noses for such recklessness.

It is a commonplace to point out that there is no respite these days, but if Vickery lives to be a hundred, he will not experience three weeks of club rugby like those he has just completed. After very nearly five months out of the game, he returned to the stresses and strains of front-row activity midway through the Premiership match with Harlequins on 23 September - and ran smack into the aforementioned Leonard. "I couldn't believe it," smiled Vickery. "I was on because of a sin-binning, which meant that we were one light in the back row. Jason gave me the old death's head smile and started licking his lips; he knew I hadn't played for ages, and he also knew I'd have no flanker behind me. Talk about a worst-case scenario."

From there it was a straight into the West Country version of an "old firm" derby: Gloucester against Bristol at a smoking, smouldering Kingsholm. As always, the pre-match bar talk was of front row conflicts of the past: the Burton-Fry wars, the Blakeway-Doubleday conflagrations. Suitably inspired, Vickery was at his boisterous best - not many of his rival tight heads will run in a try from 30 metres this season, let alone possess the brass neck to ignore a world-class finisher of Jason Little's stature. "Well, he'd already scored two, hadn't he?" grinned the "bull", explaining his decision not to present the celebrated Wallaby with a hat-trick pass on his Cherry and White debut.

Yet even that adventure paled into insignificance when the Kingsholmites pitched up in Llanelli last Friday night for their first ever Heineken Cup match. Few expected Vickery and company to beat last season's semi-finalists - maybe Vickery himself did not seriously believe it was on - but Kingsley Jones, the Welshman hurriedly re-installed as Gloucester's captain after the abrupt resignation of his All Black namesake, Ian, delivered the oval-ball equivalent of the Gettysburg Address before the game and laid the psychological foundations for a famous victory.

"It meant such an enormous amount for the club, that game," said the prop. "As ever, our supporters travelled in their hundreds, and I'm pleased for them as much as anyone. There is definitely a different atmosphere about the Heineken Cup, and perhaps it helped that Kingsley had been involved in the competition with Ebbw Vale. A lot of the boys didn't have a clue what to expect, especially the young lads, like Adam Eustace and Andy Hazell (blessed, incidentally, with the delightful joint nickname of 'Dustpan and Brush'). Kingsley said to us: 'Look, we sweated our nuts off to qualify for this competition. We can't chuck it all away now, not after all we've been through.' And we didn't. We were tremendous, all night long.

"Kingsley's good at that sort of thing, he's got the gift of the gab. Which is not to criticise Ian in any way. It takes a big man to say: 'I'm letting the captaincy go because I think I'd be more useful if I concentrated on my own game.' That was a decision most players would have backed away from making. Just by being there in the pack alongside us, Ian is an inspiration. He was man of the match at Stradey, which says something about his character."

Having looked on with all due admiration as Jones rediscovered his bearings after a mini-crisis of confidence, Vickery is now about to test himself in similar fashion. He started this Lions season injured and out of the England side; what is more, he had to watch Julian White, the aggressive Saracens tight head, make a big pitch for a permanent red rose berth with a solid performance in the summer victory over the Springboks in Bloemfontein.

"Julian's the bloke in possession, and fair play to him. It'll be struggle to get back in, but we're all in it for the competition, aren't we?"

If Vickery can cut the hot stuff against the hard-edged Italians of Roma in Sunday's Heineken tie - "I love 'em all: the French, the Irish, the Italians. They always have scrummaging props, real good time boys," he said - an England recall for next month's set-to with the world champions of Australia is a distinct possibility, especially as White is struggling with... yes, you guessed it, a neck condition. Vickery knows it would be useful to get a little retaliation in first, so to speak, especially with the Lions carrot dangling.

"The Lions? I daren't think about it. It's all very well for the Johnsons and Dallaglios to make a few plans, because they're more or less certain to go. But for the likes of me to start focusing on the Lions... well, you're on a lonely old road if you make that mistake. I'd love to be a part of it, but the first priority is getting back in the England side. I'm just happy to be playing at all, really. So many people take it for granted; it's only when you're sitting there in the stand, watching and hating every minute of it, that you realise what it means to be able to put the boots on and get out there."

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