World Cup Winner and a Whole Lot More
By Stuart Weir
There is more to Phil Vickery than just being an amazing rugby player…
Phil Vickery played rugby for England more than seventy times yet the reason for this feature and for most of the interviews he does is that he played in one particular game – the 2003 World Cup Final. He is one of that select group of England rugby players who are the only ones who can call themselves World Cup winners. Vickery has lived a full and successful life but people still want to take him back to one day 17 years ago.
Building a team
In June 1998 England were defeated 76-0 by Australia in Brisbane, 64-22 and 40-10 by New Zealand and 18-0 by South Africa. The idea that five years later England would win the World Cup seemed laughable. How on earth did the transition occur? ‘It’s a combination of a lot of things’ suggests Vickery. ‘1998 was Clive Woodward’s first tour as England coach. It was a very short tour: one test against Australia, two in New Zealand and finally South Africa. It was called the tour for from hell for a reason. It was blooming tough. It was my first tour and my second cap for England – and Jonny Wilkinson’s first cap.
‘Being brutally honest, looking back, it was one of those moments when you have choices to make. And I’m talking personally, what it did for me. We played the best in the world and I realized that I just was not good enough. And you have a choice to make. You can come home and be a well-known, well-respected, well-paid rugby player, get a few caps for England, have an amazing career and everything would be great. Or you can think “I want to be the best. This tour was embarrassing. I don’t want to be part of this again.” That tour affected me and hurt me and touched a nerve. So from that day onwards, I was determined “That is not good enough. I want to be better than that.”’
‘I think the 1999 World Cup was the start of the professional era. I know the game went professional in 1996 but the blueprint for what professional rugby was, started with Clive and the 1999 World Cup and it went on from there. We got knocked out in the quarter-final in 1999 against South Africa with Jannie de Beer’s five dropped goals. And for me, you have to be brave enough to make that decision. I was lucky that I was at a great club, Gloucester, around great players and having great coaches. That was great but I wanted more. I’m very driven – perhaps it goes back to my farming roots and my Cornish roots. You have to be driven because nobody is going to put it on a plate for you. It helped to be identified as a young man by Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson and their commitment to me helped me to understand loyalty. Clive saw the potential in me but realized I wasn’t the finished article. He could see that I was keen and that I wanted to work hard. He was prepared to invest in me. No one knows about the hours I spent with Dave Alred on psychology. That didn’t work for everyone but for me it was very important. It wasn’t just Clive. There were a lot of amazing coaches.’
The 2003 World Cup Final
As I asked him the question, I wondered how many times he had been asked to recall that historic day for English rugby. ‘Even today thinking back to the World Cup final still makes me quite emotional. Of course, it was the occasion, but it’s more the build-up to it – the work, the commitment, the people you were playing with, the relationships and everything leading up to that. The frenzy of the build up. I know I’m the Raging Bull but I’m also an emotional guy. I remember walking out before the game and just seeing white shirts and St George’s Cross flags everywhere: it was as if it was a home game. It was an unbelievable sight to see. It really is the fans who make sport.
‘Often when you play in games, you don’t see things that the spectator sees. The actual game goes so quickly. I remember being so much in control and the missed opportunities like Benny Kay dropping the ball [with the try line open]. We were dominant upfront and dominant in the tackle; we were dominant in defence. But as the game went on and Australia got themselves back into it, it was anybody’s game. Then there were the refereeing decisions at scrum time. We had not conceded one scrum penalty in the tournament and then the referee pinged me for boring in, and did Trevor Woodman for binding on the arm. It was as if the referee could see that we were battering Australia and wanted to de-power our scrum. Fair play to Australia, they kicked the points and were back in it, taking the game into extra time. While I’m an emotional guy, during the game I’m just focused on doing my job and playing the game. We felt so dominant but just not on the score board.’
Vickery captained England in the 2007 World Cup. Clive Woodward had gone, and Brian Ashton was in charge. England looked poor in the early stages of the tournament but went on to reach the final, losing to South Africa. He was twice selected for the British and Irish Lions, 2001 and 2009, playing in five tests.
Being a Lion was another career highlight: ‘Growing up I remember watching the Lions, especially the ‘89 tour to Australia with Mike Teague, Wade Dooley and all those guys. Just the fact that you can bring people from four nations together to play as one, and genuinely be able to do that, is just the most amazing thing. And not just the players but the fans, who are tribal, coming together as one and travelling halfway across the world to do it. It’s more than about sport. One of my favourite quotes comes from Ian McGeechan: “The Lions are not just about the player; it’s about the person.” The person is as important as the player because if you can’t cope with coming together with people who are normally enemies, and deal with egos, it doesn’t matter how good a rugby player you are. You got to be able to get on with people and be able to sacrifice. You got to be able to listen to a new coach, take on new ideas, shut your mouth and get on with it.’
In retirement Phil Vickery has done some after-dinner speaking, taken on ambassadorial roles and successful business ventures. He has had some great experiences but somehow nothing that quite matches that Saturday in Sydney in 2003.
1 What happens in the scrum? What, as a prop, are you trying to do?
You’re trying to get a shoulder, to get an angle; to get the scrum to go the way you want it to go, so that you can get an attacking advantage. Most of all you’re trying to go forward so that either the number eight can pick up or the scrum-half is moving forward when he picks up. You want an effective, powerful, forward-moving scrummage. The more dominant you are in the scrum, the higher percentage your attacking options or your exit options have of being successful. As a tight head prop, you’re looking at people in front of you who want to hurt you, and you want to hurt them, so it’s physical combat, physical confrontation and it’s a scary place when you are in there with lots of large human beings slamming into each other and you’re in the middle. That’s why I have had three or four spinal operations.
2 What was your best try for England?
The one that I will always remember is the one against Samoa in the group stages of the 2003 World Cup. It was the only game that I didn’t start because they were resting and rotating players. We were in a bit of trouble in that game. And as I like to tell people, I came on and changed the game with my match winning try. It was especially nice because for years I played with Samoans Junior Paramore and Terry Fanolua at Gloucester. One of the most emotional things I’ve ever been involved in was being invited into the changing room by Junior and Terry after the game where they do their prayers and thank yous, which was bloody incredible and a real privilege to have been part of.
3 Who was the best coach you played under?
That’s a bloody difficult one. Clive Woodward, of course, but one of the best coaches I have ever been coached by is Brian Ashton. He’s more a backs coach and an attack coach but definitely one of the best.
4 Best captain you have played under?
Martin Johnson with a hint of Lawrence Dallaglio.
5 You were captain of England in 15 games including the 2007 World Cup? What was your approach to captaincy?
I had my own style, but I always tried to be authentic. Being England captain is not something I ever looked for and not something that I dreamt of, but it is just something that is bestowed on you. As a young man I never thought I’d play for England so to get to a World Cup final in 2007, as England captain, I was a proud man that day. With that comes the pressures, but I was more than able to deal with that. It’s just an amazing thing to be able to say that you were England captain.
6 Tell us about Celebrity Masterchef?
I’ve always been interested in food and was very lucky in 2011 to go on Celebrity Masterchef and win it. I have always loved cooking and I love watching the show. What I did on Masterchef was lamb fillet with butter and fondant potatoes, asparagus, crispy ham, or some smoky bacon in a Madeira sauce. What winning the show has allowed me to do is to promote food and good causes around food and farming, and to show what an amazing country we live and in terms of food production.
7 What is your signature dish?
I’m a classic farmer boy. Ribeye is my favourite steak. So give me a ribeye with salad or potatoes, just a classic, well-cooked ribeye steak. You never go far wrong with a few root vegetables. I’m a nice traditional cook. I also like a really well-made sandwich. I just like nice food and well thought-about food. Of course cooking and technique are important but it’s also where the food came from and understanding a bit about food. Not necessarily being an expert, just thinking a bit about what goes into it.
8 And you now have your own restaurant?
I’m launched my first restaurant in Cheltenham called No3 (no3restaurants.com) It’s something I wanted to do for a long time and I’ve got a really good team of people. I’m ambitious but I want to start something and build from it.
9 And you have a clothing range?
‘Raging bull’ was my nickname as a rugby player. I started the clothing line when I was still playing. It has a sportswear and the leisurewear side, and I called it ‘Raging bull’. I’m extremely proud of that and passionate about it.
10 What does the Deputy Lieutenant of Gloucestershire do?
Janet Trotter, who was at the time Lieutenant, asked me to be a deputy. You are the representation of the royal family. One of my roles within the county is to find people and organizations who are doing good things and make sure that what they’re doing is not missed – making sure they get recognition, like Queen’s awards, OBEs, MBEs, knighthoods, etc.