Vickery's lead role in Italian job at risk

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The Independent Online

Three bouts of back surgery, a neck operation, a fractured eye socket, a busted forearm, a spell in la-la land courtesy of a rival West Country prop forward – when it comes to health and safety issues affecting Phil Vickery, a sore calf seems neither here nor there. It is very much "here", though, and it might stop him playing over "there". In Italy, that is. The England captain is struggling to make Sunday's date with the increasingly bullish Italians at Stadio Flaminio after picking up a minor training injury that could easily develop into a major hassle.

"I don't think I've pulled or torn anything, but it's swollen and very painful," the Cornishman said yesterday, a couple of hours after receiving a stray boot to the muscle during contact training. "I might be fit, but I won't know the extent of the damage until the medics take a proper look at it, and they can't do that until things have settled for 24 hours. Would I say I have a 50-50 chance? I wouldn't mention any figure, because basically, I don't have a bloody clue."

Rather amusingly, the England coaches have drafted the uncapped Jason Hobson of Bristol into the squad as bench cover. It was Hobson who laid Vickery low with a solid punch during a Premiership match last season, thereby knocking the captain clean out of the Six Nations matches against France and Wales. If the victim had a problem with Hobson then – "What goes around comes around," he muttered, darkly, during his convalescence – he does not have one now. "Don't go on about it," he said yesterday. "You're flogging a dead horse."

Pushing the blissful irony of the situation to one side, England can ill afford to lose Vickery for a meeting with a team boasting one of the two or three best front-row combinations in international rugby. They have already lost their most destructive scrummager, Andrew Sheridan, to an infected wound on the heel, and while there are no doubts over Matt Stevens' ability to make a fist of the tight-head role should the captain be forced to withdraw, the former world champions would feel the lack of the older man's leadership qualities. They spent only 10 minutes without him at Twickenham last Saturday, yet still managed to make a pig's ear of it.

By way of complicating Brian Ashton's life still further – the head coach has lost a third of his first-choice side since the 13th minute of the meeting with Wales, with significant power to add – there are faint concerns over the fitness of Toby Flood. The Newcastle centre had not trained until yesterday because of a thigh injury, and will not attempt to kick a ball until tonight. This explains Shane Geraghty's sudden summons to the squad on Monday.

Ashton is convinced Flood will start against the Azzurri, and has high hopes that Vickery will join him. But for all his protestations to the contrary, it is impossible to believe that English confidence is at an all-time high. David Strettle and Mike Tindall, Lewis Moody and Tom Rees, the mountainous Sheridan ... these are heavy losses.

Even if Vickery plays, his fellow senior professionals will be required to offer more in the way of direction than they provided five days ago. If he does not play, the lock Steve Borthwick and the outside-half Jonny Wilkinson will be the obvious candidates as stand-in captain. Borthwick has never led England, but performed to standard last weekend; Wilkinson has some experience of the role, but messed up badly at Twickenham.

Vickery felt compelled to defend Wilkinson, for the patron saint of the drop goal has taken an unprecedented amount of stick over the last few days. "I've given up on the whole Jonny thing, it goes around in so many circles," he said, referring to the constant babble of opinion surrounding the man, rather than the man himself. "I suppose that when someone does so much good, the criticism of the odd things he gets wrong is bound to be magnified. All I know is this: he's a true professional, one of the best I've ever played with, and if I had to put my mortgage on one bloke doing something, I'd put it on him. Maybe I'm a bit simple, but that's how I see it."

In the Eternal City, the new Azzurri coach Nick Mallett was only slightly less fulsome in his praise of Wilkinson's opposite number this weekend, the hard-tackling Biarritz midfielder, Andrea Masi, a career centre who played his first international in the pivot position against Ireland in Dublin last Saturday.

"Masi deserved seven or eight out of 10," said the former Springbok coach. "I was very happy with his game: good in defence, in his passing, in his physical play and in his anticipation. We haven't given him the responsibility of running our kicking strategy – I want him to get some confidence, which will grow match by match – but I know he can kick well. When the team has developed a greater sense of certainty, we will see him playing with his feet as well as his hands."

Mallett was critical of other aspects of his side's performance at Croke Park. "We were lucky not to concede three tries in the opening half an hour, and I'm sure other teams won't miss so many opportunities," he said. Presumably, he has yet to analyse England's outing against the Welsh.