For years after I came to live in the south-west of England I used to make the regular journey north to watch Gloucester at Kingsholm. During the games which formed the focal point of these journeys I saw many, many players. Some were at the beginning of their careers, some were in their prime, others were approaching the end. Some of the ones who were just beginning never made it, others burned brightly for short periods of time before crashing to earth, and a few went on to have long, great careers.
One of the latter was Phil Vickery. When, in the autumn of 2010, he was finally forced to retire, I wrote this.
It was a grey and blustery autumn day in the south-west of England when the news came through that Phil Vickery had announced his retirement from rugby. The type of day which Vickery knew well in the days before his talent forced him to leave behind his roots. To go to Gloucester, to Twickenham, to a day in Sydney in November 2003 when the world belonged to him and the greatest team England ever had.
The decision didn’t come as a surprise. Vickery’s been injured so many times it’s a miracle that his career lasted as long as it did. But for all its commonplace nature the news still stirred my emotions in a way that the retirements of all the other England heroes never did.
I first saw Vickery in a Gloucester shirt in a game at Kingsholm against London Irish in December 1996. It was a fractious encounter of the sort which Gloucester supporters knew only too well at the time. Castle Grim, on that sort of night, with the floodlights shining through the evening mist like beacons, has never been the sort of venue to inspire running rugby. Vickery held his own in the scrum but didn’t see the ball until well into the second half. When he received a pass in front of the old main stand and thundered forward, we in the Shed half expected to feel the ground shake, for Vickery, twenty years old at the time, was a very, very large lad indeed. And while it was obvious that he’d need to become a lot fitter to make his mark at the highest level, there was something about him which suggested that we’d be hearing his name a lot more.
Little more than a year later he was making his debut for England against Wales at Twickenham, and he was to stay in and around the side for more than eleven years, through 73 caps and three World Cups. He also went on two tours with the British Lions and played in five Test matches.
The England team which won the World Cup contained a number of players who assumed the mantle of heroes more readily than Vickery. Johnson, of the glowering intensity and undeniable will; Dallaglio, all heart-on-the-sleeve passion and utter determination to triumph; Jonny, every mother’s favourite son, with a counter-intuitive charisma based upon quiet dedication and achievement.
Vickery was different. He was as important to Woodward’s sides as any of the others but he did his job simply, and without artifice. Locking the scrum, winning the ball in the loose, and, when the game opened up and the moment permitted, carrying it with comfort and authority and relish. For these reasons, and because of his origins in one of the marginal regions of Britain, he became a quiet hero to those of us who sometimes tired of the more obvious and noticeable qualities of his team-mates.
In many ways Cornwall is a land apart from the rest of its nation. It is remote, ruggedly beautiful, nationalistic and poor. Before the coming of the celebrity restaurants it had tin mining, it had fishing, it had agriculture and it had its own language. Now it also has tourism and it has rugby. To go to Camborne or Redruth on the day of a big game, such as the time the All Blacks came to Hellfire Corner in 1993, is to witness a stirring devotion to a sport which, though born on the playing fields of Public Schools, has always held a strange and beguiling appeal for those on the Celtic fringes of the United Kingdom.
Vickery grew up on a farm in the parish of Kilkhampton, in the county’s remote north-east, nearer to Devon and the rest of the country than the rugby strongholds of his own county. But he was rooted in the area’s soil, and it came as a wrench when he had to leave the region in order to make his name at Gloucester.
By that time, though, the sensation wasn’t new. Vickery had played representative rugby outside his own county for several years before he, in common with many of his young compatriots with other talents, had to leave the area permanently in order to fulfil his rich potential. He once talked with feeling in an interview about how his mother used to drive him all the way to Exeter so that he could catch the train to far-flung places like Wolverhampton to play in England Schools’ matches. His gratitude was implicit, but, at the time, he may have wondered whether it would all be worth it.
Just a few days after he announced his retirement, he walked in front of the Shed at Gloucester and its inhabitants – perhaps the most passionate, intensely critical yet loyal supporters in English rugby – applauded him like a lost son.
It was worth it.