Phil Vickery talks Lions

WE TOOK the opportunity to speak to our lead ambassador Phil Vickery MBE DL on his two Lions tours and what his thoughts are on the upcoming tour to New Zealand.

Phil, a proud Cornishman, is nicknamed “Raging Bull”. He won 73 caps for England and played all seven games in the World Cup winning squad in 2003. He toured twice with the Lions in 2001 and 2009, losing in Australia but winning in South Africa, he was capped in five test matches.

What was it like when you got that call?

“The first time was an incredible feeling, thinking as a young man that you wouldn’t be good enough to play for Gloucester or England let alone go on a Lions tour.”

“2009 was very special, going into it knowing it would be my last. A lot of people said I’d never play international rugby again after 2006 and my neck operation. But I got myself back ready to go on tour again and experience the Lions.  For me, the Lions is the most amazing experience as both a player and fan, the four nations coming together as one team, not just the players but fans.”

Four nations coming together, players, some of whom have never met, the camaraderie, the roommates, what marks tour down as a special time?

“To make a good tourist you have to adapt and lay your soul bare. You are potentially playing and sharing with guys who are trying to pick you apart for your place. You have to be honest, mix and interact. Sir Iain McGeechan once said “The person is as important as the player” If that player can’t mix and aspire to be the best person he can on tour he is lost. The Lions is about breaking down barriers and boundaries, being open and transparent. It is a very different environment for a player. But a wonderful one!”

Who were your most fearsome opponents for the Lions?

“South Africans as a pack you respected, you gauged yourself on. John Smit and I came up through the ranks together, played against each other so much. The “Beast”, Tendai Mtawarira, in 2009 that first test was very special. Victor Matfield is someone I have a huge amount of respect for and was a phenomenal player.”

“Playing in the front row there are no easy games or easy tours, its hard graft. With the Lions it’s not the individuals, it is the team, the collective who have an opportunity to make history. For many, it is the biggest game of their career that they will play in, whether it is a test match or mid-week. We think it is special every four years, but for our opponents, it is every 12 years. You could be a 100 cap Springbok, All Black or Wallaby and never play the Lions. If you think, the great Jonah Lomu never had the opportunity to take on the Lions. Having just been out to New Zealand, they cannot wait for the games, it is genuinely such a big deal for them.”

Phil Vickery SA Lions

Having played under two different Lions coaches, how does the coach make a difference?

“It’s very difficult to compare as there are also two different sets of players. My first coach was Sir Graham Henry, and many will disagree as they say he wasn’t a lot of fun, but for me he was great. He was always polite and spoke when you approached him. My forwards coach was Andy Robinson and we all got on with him really well anyway and had huge respect for him.”

“In 2009 Warren Gatland was someone I got really well with on that tour, Sir Ian McGeechan is easy to get on with and I don’t know anyone that doesn’t get on with him, Graham Rowntree I knew well and was great to work with, Rob Howley another great guy. All coaches have different traits but what we have to remember is that everyone on that tour does not want to fail. Warren was great at breaking down barriers, often it involved a glass of something!”

Who may be the new individuals coming out of this Lions tour?

“It’s difficult to look through a squad and look for individuals, all I hope is that the guys all stay fit and don’t get injured. There is still rugby to be played before they leave. There are stand out guys, I think Maro Itoje has a bit to prove, he didn’t have a great six nations, playing in the back row didn’t help him. Jonathon Sexton and Connor Murray at 9 and 10, Connor is a bit of a worry as he can get injured. I was absolutely delighted for Jack Nowell, I picked Jack, yes I know he’s a Cornish boy and I may get a bit emotional about it, but he’s got some spirit and some edge about him. He could come through some big names, they are looking for people who can make a difference and possess that bit of edge and he’s got it. Front row, Kyle Sinkler, being able to give contrast in the front row is hugely important, he’s proven that this year with both England and Harlequins and I think that’s exciting. As a forwards pack we actually look strong, but it’s getting those combinations right and being able to play. If we don’t go to New Zealand and play then we are in a world of pain. Do our set pieces, scrum well, kick our goals and play well. New Zealand kick the ball a lot, so the back three will be under a lot of high balls.”

What is like pulling on that famous red jersey for the first time?

“There is no other feeling like it, it is an amazing feeling, I have never experienced anything like it and will never experience anything like it ever again, but to represent the British and Irish Lions, the countries, the fans, the people are just the most incredible feeling. I remember Willie-John McBride, starting to speak in the Hilton Hotel in Brisbane on my first Lions tour in that wonderful voice, and I started to cry, I looked around and most people were crying, it was just the most emotional time ever and my first cap we won. In rugby, I have never experienced anything like that.”

“My final cap for the Lions in South Africa, to have won in Johannesburg was a very special moment for me.”