“Have you been missold PPI?” As I reach to put the phone down, annoyed that some call centre or other has rung me as I’m waiting for the call from Phil Vickery, I suddenly realise the voice has a distinct West Country twang to it. “Er.. what?” I say. “Just kidding mate, it’s Phil here,” comes the response.
I’ll be honest, I hadn’t expected the man known as the Raging Bull on the pitch to open with a joke. As he chuckles down the line at his own genius (I was laughing too, to be fair), any nerves I had dissipate and a relaxed tone is set for the interview – just as it should be.
After some gentle smalltalk about Gloucester being better than London, and Bath being ‘London by the sea’, we get onto more serious matters: England and the Six Nations. How impressed has the former captain of the national side been with them so far? “It’s been good fun, hasn’t it? All the talk was about how would they back up that New Zealand performance, and I think it’s just been great to watch. They made a great start, and then backed it up with a pretty spectacular victory over in Ireland, which as a spectacle wasn’t great, but a win at the Aviva Stadium… goodness me.”
France next, and Les Bleus were vanquished from Twickenham with relative ease. “They came to Twickenham with nothing to lose, players were finally picked in the right positions, and England had to dig in and really fight for that victory. It was a great victory in the end.” Another step down the road to – whisper it quietly – the Grand Slam. But is it too early for talk of that? “They’re in with a shout, but whether or not they’ll do it, I don’t know. They’ve got everything they need to do it, I think the question is now just whether they can do it on the day.”
Vickery cites the Italy match as quite a speed bump, but it would certainly be the shock of the Six Nations if England didn’t record a fairly comfortable win. If that is the case, everything will be set up for one of the biggest games in the Northern Hemisphere for quite some years. “Goodness me, what Cardiff’s going to be like in two weeks’ time – I dread to think, it will just be phenomenal. All that rugby history, the camaraderie, the hatred, the passion – I just hope that England get it right there. We will find out a lot about this England team. It’s about the only time I wish I could still play rugby.”
When asked who in particular has impressed him in this England setup, Vickery proceeds to reel off pretty much the entire team. One man who does not feature, however, is someone who has been making headlines for the wrong reasons recently. “I’ve said this about Chris Ashton for the last twelve months: what’s he done? For me, he hasn’t moved on since he splashed onto the scene. There’ve been opportunities that he’s had, both in defence and in attack, that I believe he hasn’t taken. I don’t believe he’s moved on like this England team have moved on. I’m not saying he’s not a good player… he’s just been given a lot more latitude than a lot of players – think of poor Charlie Sharples, who was playing well, comes in and gets an opportunity, doesn’t play that well and gets dropped.”
Not sitting on the fence on this issue, then. “I just think it seems to be one rule for one and one rule for another when it comes to Chris Ashton,” he says. Indeed when you look at the Ashton dilemma in the context of someone like Sharples, or Strettle, who have both been dropped after significantly fewer poor performances, it does seem astounding that Ashton is still there. No other player has been allowed such leeway by Lancaster and, as an article earlier in the week pointed out, it’s not like there aren’t alternatives. “I struggle to justify why he’s in the team, when you’ve got guys like Wade at Wasps scoring tries on a sixpence and May at Gloucester who seems to be rampant and on form.”
Our conversation then turns to the small matter of the looming Lions tour. Vickery went on two Lions tours, and as such he is well-placed to comment on the unique flavour it gives to a season. Does it change the way players feel and act during the Six Nations, knowing what’s just around the corner? “If you start looking too far ahead, things come crashing down. It’s a wonderful thing, but the minute you start thinking about that it’s taken away from you. It’s something that’s bestowed upon you. And you talk about six months being a long time in rugby; well I tell you what, two weeks in the Six Nations can see things change very quickly.”
What of the current crop? Who does he think will be on the tour? “They have a head coach in Warren Gatland who will not be afraid to make big calls – if you’re good enough, and you’re showing him what he wants to see, then you’ll go.” Of course, one of the biggest selection debates will surround the front row, given the importance of this area of the modern game. “At the moment I think Dan Cole would be a starter,” he says. “I’d love to see Adam Jones getting back to where he was, but since the last Lions tour he’s had so many injuries I don’t think he’s put together enough consistency. Hooker’s a tough one, because I still don’t see anyone really sticking their hand up. And if I’d had to pick a prop who I’d want to play with, and who was a bastard to play against, that would have to be Cian Healy.”
So there you have it. Cole and Healy to prop for the Lions, with hooker still anyone’s guess. Of course as Vickery says, two weeks or six months – however you cut it – there is an awful lot of rugby to be played. Things will change, of that there is no doubt, but for now we should just enjoy the unpredictability.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
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