Vickery sets out on the long road back to glory

Belying his nickname, Gloucester's 'Raging Bull' is quietly determined to recover from a devastating back injury and reclaim his England place
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Traditionally, the stone-age species known as the Gloucester prop forward - or Homo punchyithicus, to use the scientific term - is not highly regarded by sporting anthropologists, who invariably place the Wallaby outside-half and the French centre higher in rugby's evolutionary scale. So when Phil Vickery, lord and master of the Kingsholm front row, suddenly spouts forth on issues ranging from the Common Agricultural Policy to the complex dynamics of merchandising, there are only two possible explanations: either he has too much time on his hands, or there is more to this scrummaging lark than meets the eye.

Traditionally, the stone-age species known as the Gloucester prop forward - or Homo punchyithicus, to use the scientific term - is not highly regarded by sporting anthropologists, who invariably place the Wallaby outside-half and the French centre higher in rugby's evolutionary scale. So when Phil Vickery, lord and master of the Kingsholm front row, suddenly spouts forth on issues ranging from the Common Agricultural Policy to the complex dynamics of merchandising, there are only two possible explanations: either he has too much time on his hands, or there is more to this scrummaging lark than meets the eye.

Until very recently, Vickery did indeed have all the time in the world. A slow convalescence from his latest bout of surgery left him vulnerable to a stream of negative thoughts about his future as a rugby player, so he concentrated his mind on the farm he owns in partnership with his brother, and the sportswear company he owns in partnership with no one. That these useful distractions were available to him underline the fact that England's World Cup-winning tight head is significantly more switched on than the average inhabitant of the darkened recesses. In fact, Vickery cuts a dash as the very epitome of the modern union professional - ambitious, multifaceted, successful.

Now, however, he is back on Route One, heading towards the high peaks of an umpteenth international championship with England and a second tour with the British and Irish Lions. Farming will take a back seat, the wheeling and dealing will be conducted largely in his absence. After six months spent preparing for life after rugby, the next three years will be dedicated to life within it. Vickery wants that second Lions tour, plus Premiership and Heineken Cup titles for Gloucester, and another World Cup for his country. He accepts he will achieve none of this without giving everything of himself to the cause.

"After the operations I've had [first on the neck, then the back; two areas of maximum importance for a front-rower] it is a simple question of whether the sacrifice is worth it," Vickery said this week, a few days after performing unfeasibly well in a Heineken Cup match with Stade Français in Paris, his first start since April.

"I thought long and hard about this during my recovery, and I decided I wanted to make that sacrifice. Rugby is a part of me, and the old desire and excitement is still there. Am I storing up trouble for myself by continuing? Maybe. But I understand the risks and I'm willing to take them. Anyway, if you looked too deeply at the possible consequences of your decisions, you'd never do anything, would you?"

Vickery spent days and weeks in horizontal purgatory following his last wrestle with the surgeon, who shaved away substantial sections of two displaced discs that had taken to colliding with each other. On the odd occasion he felt able to stand, it was only for a couple of minutes at a time. The England management kept in touch and regularly invited him to get-togethers at the red-rose headquarters in Surrey, but as two hours in a car were the very last thing he needed, Vickery had no option but to make his excuses and stay in bed. Those endless months of painstaking recovery were, he says now, the worst of his life.

"It's the not knowing," he explained. "That's what gets to you. Confidence in yourself is the first thing that goes, because you're not quite sure whether you will ever get back. I don't think I ever lost heart, but there were definitely times when I wondered whether I could go through the whole process of working my way to full fitness. It was a matter of reminding myself that rugby is more than a job to me, wonderful job though it may be. It's also my hobby, my passion, my everything. If you can't fight for your future in those circumstances, it's a sad state of affairs.

"Besides, the situation surrounding this back problem was entirely different to the earlier one, when my neck went. Then, I made the mistake of playing on when I shouldn't have done anything of the sort. Why did I do that? Because I was young and stupid, I suppose; I was at a stage of my career when I couldn't bear the thought of missing anything. This time round, I knew more about myself and about the procedures involved.

"My surgeon was incredibly good. Right at the beginning, he said: 'Look, you're a young man and I don't want to mess you up, so I'll only go in if I have to.' When he eventually decided surgery was the only way forward, he made it his business to do the minimum. I had, and continue to have, complete confidence in his judgement."

This time last year, when the England pack were squeezing everyone else's pips in a World Cup campaign based squarely on forward superiority, Vickery's fighting weight was a whopping 18st 6lbs. Now, he looks far leaner. Only the visually challenged would accuse him of being aerodynamic, but by shedding a stone or so as a result of regular runs up one of the Cotswold range's more precipitous inclines, he looks healthier than at any point in his career. Certainly, his contribution around the field at the Stade Jean Bouin last weekend suggested he had gained a yard of pace - no mean feat for a prop who, even at his heaviest, habitually made 15 quality tackles a game.

On Tuesday, he was named in a 40-man England squad for the forthcoming autumn internationals, which begin with a Test against Canada at Twickenham on 13 November. The other tight-head specialists are Matt Stevens, the young Bath prop, who cannot scrummage anywhere near well enough at the moment, and Julian White, the ogreish man-eater from Leicester, who certainly can. The assumption is that White will start these immediate Tests - a view strengthened by the decision of Gloucester's director of rugby, Nigel Melville, to go public with his opinion that Canada, not to mention South Africa and Australia, will arrive too early for Vickery.

Fact, or fiction? Vickery shrugged. "Julian is No 1 by a country mile, whether I consider myself ready or not," he admitted. "He started the Tests in New Zealand and Australia in the summer, and he's been playing bloody well in the Premiership. I'm just starting over, so I have plenty on my plate working my way from week to week. It's not easy. I felt OK over in France last weekend, except for the fact that we scored 31 points against a side of their quality and still lost the game, which was unforgiveable. But it's a question of consistency, and that takes time.

"I speak to Andy Robinson [the England coach] a good deal, and he's been brilliant in coming to watch me. I appreciate that, more than he can know. But I'm still stiff and sore after matches, which is only to be expected. It's a hard old game in the front row these days - less like rugby, more like war - and it takes some getting used to after spending so long away. My brother farms from six in the morning until 10 at night and handles it brilliantly, but it would be crazy to ask some bloke from the city to do the same and expect him to survive. He'd be on his knees after a day. It's the same with rugby.

"My ambition runs just as deep as it ever did, but I'm willing to take my time over this. I need to find out a few things about myself over the coming weeks, not least whether I can still lock down a scrum - or hit that ruck, or make that tackle - when I'm absolutely knackered. That's when I'll know I'm back in business, and as we speak, I'm not there yet.

"If Andy asked me to turn out for England at scrum-half next week, I'd do it. Of course I would. But all things being equal, that's unlikely to happen. My first priority is to get myself absolutely right, and then challenge Julian for his England shirt. Until I'm playing better than him on a weekly basis, he's the man."

Front-row forwards may cheat like hell, even within the arcane parameters of their own code, and they may cause mayhem after 97 pints of cider. But they generally tell it as they see it, and Vickery is as honest as any of them, which is why Sir Clive Woodward asked him to captain the national team on more than one occasion. It is good to see him back between the shafts.

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