Vickery turns Cornish ice cream into Churchillian rhetoric

England's captain was banned at the start of the tournament. Now he is a one-man band on the stirring speeches front. Tim Glover reports from Paris
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A few weeks ago Phil Vickery, and his country, appeared to be on their knees.

England, the defending champions of the World Cup, pitched up in Lens in the north of France to play the little old US of A in what should have been a smashing victory.

It was anything but. England sweated and laboured to a most unimpressive win against valiant but limited opponents who managed to, indignity of indignities, score a pushover try by a man who plays for a club called Park City Haggis. God, were they laughing in Caledonia, not to mention California.

By that stage Vickery had gone Awol. The England captain, loitering with intent in midfield – and how he got there even he doesn't know – stuck out a huge Tyrannosaurus rex of a leg and blatantly and horribly tripped the American centre Paul Emerick who, but for the clumsy intervention, was embarking on a most ambitious mission towards the England try line. Alas, poor Emerick.

The American centre was crestfallen and injured but he recovered after treatment; Vickery was just downright embarrassed and subsequently received a two-match ban for a dangerous tackle. Vickery, in his defence, said there was "no malicious intent". It didn't look like it but you were still tempted to believe him. Over the last staggering month he has gone from zero to heroic captain.

Vickery's career as a prop forward – insurance companies don't want to know about players in these positions – has been severely interrupted by serious injuries and in France he was forced to watch from the sidelines, not because of a mangled neck, but a soccer-like tackle.

Martin Corry, the former captain, had to take over the leadership of England who proceeded to be destroyed 36-0 by South Africa – their opponents, of course, in the final on Saturday – before reaching the knock-out stages with hard victories over Samoa and Tonga.

After the beating of Tonga, which ensured England's survival, Vickery was back on track for the quarter-final with Australia in Marseilles. "Obviously I would like to play against the Wallabies," he said, "but I can't take anything for granted." He wasn't just talking about his position in the front row but also the captaincy: for Corry was stepping up to the mark and also catching the eye by scoring tries.

Will you be back as the skipper Vickery was asked. "I don't know mate," he replied. "You're talking to the wrong person."

As it happens we were talking to the right person. Vickery displaced the impressive Matt Stevens and also regained the leadership of a ship that had become dangerously close to becoming becalmed.

And then, all of a sudden, England's and Vickery's World Cup was turned on its head. But he came, to lend experience and true grit, in the nail-biting 12-10 win over Australia although it's becoming a pattern that he doesn't quite make the happy hour.

Against the Australians he was replaced by the much younger and rawer Stevens in the 59th minute and in the 14-9 triumph over France in the semi-final at the Stade de France last Saturday night he came off, again for Stevens, in the 56th minute. So, all in all, he's almost as fresh as a daisy.

It is, however, post-match that Vickery has grown into an almost Churchillian figure. He speaks softly, in a Cornish accent as rich and rounded as ice-cream, and virtually every word is recorded for posterity.

After knocking out Australia he said: "We're a good side and perhaps will go further than people think. The victory was down to good old-fashioned guts. We keep putting ourselves in positions where it's going to hurt. A lot of people have written us off but you do that at your peril. On any given day anybody can beat anybody. We're all very proud Englishmen, very proud to wear the jersey and we're representing our country to the highest of our ability."

After knocking out France Vickery said: "It's just such a fantastic experience. Sometimes in sport things don't make sense. It was one of those very, very special days when the underdog rises up. Both teams were desperate to win the game. We managed to keep ourselves together and just sneak it.

"The defeat to South Africa was a very, very bitter pill to swallow and it was painful for all the players and the coaching staff but sport is a very strange animal. We had to bounce back and we did. We dug in and made it difficult for the opposition. We make ourselves awkward enough for the opposition to find it very difficult to beat us. We're a pretty good mix. It's been an unbelievable roller-coaster and we will be trying to do ourselves justice in the World Cup final. The team spirit has always been excellent. If somebody makes a mistake there is always two or three players to clean up. Everyone has stepped up to the mark. Really, we're all like a big family."

Vickery doesn't do crowing and, apart from the trip against the United States, almost nothing from him is over the top. At post-match press conferences, Brian Ashton, the coach, is quite content to let Vickery take centre stage. And Vickery, a member of England's World Cup winning side in Australia four years ago, is becoming more and more comfortable in the role.

Leader of the pack: 'Phil is my ideal sort of captain'

"In Phil Vickery you've got a great guy who oozes leadership, and a credible, world-class player." - Brian Ashton, England coach.

"I have one word for Phil: respect. I have total respect for what he brings to the game, for the regard in which he is held by his team-mates and the experience he offers the English pack." - Raphael Ibanez, France captain and Vickery's Wasps teammate.

"Vicks has these one-liners. He likes to put the banter around." - Tom French, Wasps team-mate.

"Phil is a player of massive experience who has been at the top of the world and he has a great desire to lead England back there again. For a prop forward he thinks pretty deeply about what he's going to say. He always comes up with the right thing. He made a very moving speech to the squad about about what it meant to him to be playing France in a World Cup semi-final on their own ground, and what it should mean to everyone in the room. You saw from the game that it obviously had some sort of effect. Phil is my ideal sort of captain." - Martin Corry, England team-mate.

"Phil was telling me about growing up in Cornwall, and every morning getting up early, throwing open the windows to see the farm below with the cows in the field. I like that image." - Ibanez.