If ever England needed a full complement of tough, no-nonsense, dockyard-brawling hombres to do a job for them in a World Cup match, it is now. Unfortunately for the reigning champions, one of the toughest in the business is under serious threat of suspension and may well miss the long-awaited meeting with South Africa in Saint-Denis on Friday night.
Phil Vickery, the captain, was yesterday cited for kicking the centre Paul Emerick during Saturday's ponderous victory over the United States and will be fortunate to escape a two-week ban that would also prevent him playing against Samoa on 22 September.
While the citing, issued by the match commissioner Steven Hinds, had been widely expected – nobody with eyes to see could deny that Vickery brought Emerick crashing to earth with a football-style hack across the knees reminiscent of a Fourth Division clogger circa 1973 – the wording of the charge sheet came as a rude shock. Vickery has not been accused of "tripping", but of "kicking". Mere semantics? Not according to rugby's disciplinarians, who ensure such distinctions are reflected in the range of punishments available to those who sit in judgement on errant players.
The minimum ban for a tripping offence is a fortnight although, under tournament rules, this could be reduced by up to 50 per cent if the plea of mitigation is sufficiently convincing. The minimum for kicking is four weeks, again with the "50 per cent off" option. If Vickery, who will be represented by Richard Smith QC at today's hearing in central Paris, is not acquitted – and he publicly accepted a degree of blame after the match by describing his action as "unfortunate" and "instinctive" – England will face the Springboks without their most combative tight forward.
"I've yet to see the full documentation," said Smith, once a West Country club player of considerable local repute and now a barrister with an impressive track record of saving English bacon in disciplinary tribunals around the world. "Does that surprise me? Nothing surprises me."
He confirmed that citings were made only if the commissioner felt the offence to be so serious that it warranted a sending-off, and that he would therefore be defending Vickery against a red card, even though the match officials missed the incident entirely.
There is not even the solace of knowing that in the event of a guilty verdict, England could lodge an appeal and continue to select Vickery pending the fresh hearing. "In that event, he would be ineligible until the issue is resolved," Smith said.
England have a ready-made replacement in Matt Stevens, the Bath prop. Born in Durban and still the holder a South African passport, Stevens is much the superior footballer; indeed, he possesses skills far beyond the imaginings of a more traditional thud-and-blunderer like Vickery. But with the Springboks likely to be in full warpaint – Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith, their most aggressive forwards, warmed up for the match ahead by going toe to toe with the Samoans on Sunday – the champions would feel the absence of their captain extremely sharply, especially in the early exchanges.
Should Vickery be given a lengthy ban, the holders would be in serious strife. Julian White, the Lions Test prop who withdrew from the World Cup training party in June citing family and farming commitments, would be an adequate replacement, but it is not clear whether England could call on his services. World Cup regulations state that players can be replaced only in cases of injury or in exceptional circumstances. Suspension does not obviously fall into either of those categories.
Yesterday, the man who led England in South Africa during the summer, the wing Jason Robinson, put a brave face on affairs. "There has been no disruption whatsoever," he said. "We have 30 players here, and it's a matter of everyone getting themselves focused on the job in hand. We hope Phil will be involved – it's a massive game, and if we're not tough up front, we'll be beaten – but I believe in the people in this squad. Nobody outside thinks we can win the match, but that sort of thinking has been going on for four years now, so another week won't make a difference. We have people who have played in, and performed in, the biggest contests. And contests don't come bigger than this one."
One player definitely out of both the game and tournament is the strapping Springbok centre Jean de Villiers, who tore his left biceps during the first half of the match with Samoa at Parc des Princes and did not resume after the interval. Wayne Julies, a striking attacking runner from the Boland Cavaliers, will replace him.Reuse content