Vickery's fight fuelled by battle with Stevens

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The Independent Online

There are a number of items on Phil Vickery's personal agenda as the England captain prepares to negotiate what looks suspiciously like the most open, least predictable Six Nations Championship since Italy joined the party eight years ago. For one thing, he would like to get through a major international match without suffering a serious problem with his neck. (He has had four such injuries, and he is heartily sick of the trauma). For another, he aims to remind the public that his occasional afternoons on a rugby field amount to something more than a disciplinary hearing waiting to happen.

Most importantly, though, he needs to re-establish his reputation as the best tight-head prop in England. This is no mean challenge, for his direct rival, Matt Stevens of Bath, is in the form of his life. "He's performing fantastically well," Vickery admitted yesterday at the official tournament launch in one of the better-heeled corners of the capital. "The pressure is extreme and if I don't deliver, it won't be long before I find I'm not playing. But I back myself. I think I've done all right down the years. I'm not that bad a player."

Vickery has never been a bad player, but he has had his bad moments – many to do with gross misfortune of the orthopaedic variety, some to do with spectacular lapses in discipline. Since taking on the England captaincy this time last year, he has been punched into semi-consciousness by a rival West Country prop in a Premiership match and picked up two suspensions, one for treating a World Cup audience in France to an uncannily accurate impersonation of an ageing centre-half clogger circa 1970.

That wild hack across the knees of the United States centre Paul Emerick marked the start of his team's descent into a particularly gruesome circle of sporting purgatory, and while they redeemed themselves sufficiently to reach the comparative paradise of a second successive global final – a rise not wholly unassociated with Vickery's contribution at the business end of the competition – Stevens served notice during his captain's absence that he was more than ready to succeed him on a full-time basis.

Many presumed the 32-year-old Cornishman would retire from Test rugby – perhaps from all rugby – after finishing nine points shy of the Springboks in Paris last October. Vickery played magnificently in the first half of that momentous game, not least in leading England's goal-line stand as the South Africans laid siege shortly before the interval, but that effort left him nursing yet another neck injury and wondering whether he might need a fourth bout of surgery on that most fragile part of his ox-like frame.

So why continue? Two World Cup finals, a Lions tour, a Heineken Cup winner's medal, a season as captain of his country... was he not pushing his luck by carrying on? "I love what I do," he replied. "I can't help loving it. They say a player knows when the time is right for retirement, when he doesn't want it any more. As we speak, I don't know anything of the sort. I can't tell you exactly what it is that drives me on, but I want to keep going. Even last weekend, when I was playing in the pouring rain in Limerick and getting knocked out of the Heineken Cup, I was thinking to myself: 'Phil, this is one fabulous experience.'

"It doesn't seem like five minutes ago that we were all wrapped up in that World Cup final. The emotion of it is still very much with me – the feeling of enormous pride, as well as that of intense disappointment at not forcing one last victory. I think it's good that this Six Nations has come round so quickly, because that emotion needs to be channelled.

"Do I still feel I have something to offer this England team? If I didn't I'd be at home right now, spending time with my little daughter. I recall as a young player looking up to Jason Leonard [the most decorated England international of them all]. He helped me, encouraged me and wanted me to do well, even though we were fighting for one place in the team. I'd like to think I'm having a similar influence on Matt Stevens."

If it is fanciful to suggest that Vickery could possibly play as well over the next couple of months as he played with the Lions in Australia seven years ago, it is not unreasonable to expect him to contribute a captain's knock when the going gets tough.

"We're very honest with each other and we've talked about the difficult decision I'll have to make if he doesn't perform to expectations," said Brian Ashton, the head coach. "But talk is talk. I don't for one moment believe the situation will arise."