Vickery: Nothing better than representing the Lions

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Phil Vickery

There is no doubt in the mind of two-Tour veteran Phil Vickery: representing The British & Irish Lions is the pinnacle of any player’s career.

The tighthead prop, Lion #701, played in all three Tests during the 2001 Tour to Australia, and twice in South Africa in 2009, though missed the 2005 trip to New Zealand due to injury.

And though Vickery, a World Cup winner with England in 2003, did not taste a series win with the Lions, playing his part in two Test victories and captaining the side against the Western Province has left him with his fondest rugby memories.

“The first Test against Australia I remember being in the hotel and there was a sea of red in the hotel lobby,” he recalled.

“I remember there being a tunnel of people to walk through to get to the bus. Then all the way to the stadium there were people in cars, standing on lorries, hanging out windows, there were red shirts everywhere.

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“The Lions support was just taking over the place. At the time you think I’m playing for the biggest team in the world, against the best team in the world, in the biggest stadium in the world, it doesn’t get better, this is a big deal.”

Phil Vickery celebrates after the game

In 2001, Vickery was a rock on which Lions coach Graham Henry attempted to build the platform for a series victory over the Wallabies.

At just 24 years of age, the then Gloucester tight-head played in all three Tests against Australia despite stiff competition from Lions stalwarts Dai Young and Jason Leonard.

Vickery was expected to become a double Lions tourist when Sir Clive Woodward selected his squad for the 2005 Tour to New Zealand but injury prevented him from travelling.

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Despite numerous further injury concerns, Vickery fought back to win a place in the 2009 Lions squad to Tour South Africa. He went on to make two Test appearances for Britain and Ireland’s elite against the Springboks, ending his Lions career on a real high with victory over the World Champions in Johannesburg.

That triumph held even more resonance for Vickery after he produced a superb individual performance to banish memories of the personal criticism he had endured with regard to scrummaging difficulties after the first Test defeat in Durban.

Paul O'Connell, Phil Vickery and Joe Worsley

As well as winning five caps for the Lions, ‘The Raging Bull’ made 73 Test appearances for England. Vickery made his international debut against Wales in 1998 and went on to represent his country at the following year’s World Cup.

A member of England’s triumphant starting XV in the World Cup Final in Sydney four years later, Vickery helped banish some of the disappointment of the Lions’ third Test defeat to the Wallabies in the same city in 2001.

Vickery on the 2001 Tour

“It was a massive event. In 2001, I was 24 so still reasonably young and it was something I always dreamed of. I watched Lions tours as a young man and I never really thought I would be involved in one.

“It was fantastic, playing with Keith Wood and Tommy Smith. Obviously Dai Young was around and Scott Gibbs came out in the end, Brian O’Driscoll etc. There were a lot of big names and I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the Tour, although ultimately it finished in disappointment with losing the final Test match and losing the series.”

On that famous first Test win over the Wallabies

“The first Test in Brisbane at The Gabba is probably one of my greatest rugby memories and experiences. It was just phenomenal and I’d never experienced anything like it. The support, the euphoria, the expectations, the pressure, the history and everything that surrounds the Lions makes it just a phenomenal thing to be involved in.”

Phil Vickery at the final whistle

On a special bond with the travelling support

“You couldn’t go anywhere without being stopped. I think I’ve got a pretty good relationship with all supporters, whether they are English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh but being embraced and being part of that with the Lions was truly a privilege. It was something I thoroughly enjoyed and was very pleased to be a part of.”

On captaining the 2009 Lions against Western Province

“When you’re asked to be captain you say, ‘fantastic’. Then, within two seconds, you think, ‘this is quite a big deal.’

“When you play for the Lions you’re carrying the dreams and frustrations of millions of people. Sometimes you have to remember that there are a hell of a lot of people who are right behind you and want you to do well.

“When you’re in this environment it’s a small bubble. You can get carried away and the most trivial little things become a real big problem. It’s important to step outside it, realise what you’re part of and to enjoy it.

“After joining Wasps, I captained England to a World Cup final, won 30 or 40 more England caps and was asked to be captain of the Lions. It was the most unbelievable experience and I can honestly say it far surpassed anything I thought I’d reach again.”

On the third Test win over the Boks

“It was a fantastic day. We won the match and that was all that was important to me.

“There was a lot of stuff written and a lot of stuff said, as always. There was a lot of pressure on me and it’s been quite an emotional couple of weeks but, ultimately, we got a ‘W’, which is the most important thing.

“I’m just thrilled for everyone. Everyone contributed to the Tour and everyone contributed to the game and that’s why we’ve come away with a well earned victory.”

On the 2009 Tour as a whole

“It was a great Tour, one which I certainly won’t forget in a hurry. I’m very, very proud of the guys. Ultimately, we’ve lost the series but we’ve taken home a huge amount of pride.

“The Boks certainly deserve their series victory – they’ve had two good wins. But we’ve held ourselves together and I think we can go home and hold our heads high.

“This Tour’s been very special for me, being with this group of guys, this group of coaches, the backroom staff and everyone else. It’s just been absolutely fantastic and a real privilege to be a part of it.”

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