PHIL Vickery knows what it takes to win World Cup finals – as he did as part of England’s 2003 world champion outfit – and also what is required to get back on your feet again after coming second, which is what happened when he captained England in 2007.
Vickery’s side came back from the dead in 2007 to not only get to the final, but then to run Jake White’s South Africa much closer than Owen Farrell’s crew managed to do against the 2019 Rassie Erasmus version.
However, the big tight-head doffs his cap to the current Red Rose side for producing a semi-final win over New Zealand which he describes as, “one of the greatest total performances by England I’ve seen”.
Vickery says that because of what Farrell’s side has achieved, he is not about to become a fair weather supporter who abandons them because of last weekend’s disappointing 24-17 defeat by France in Paris.
Instead, the former England skipper sounds a rallying cry, and says he believes they can still salvage their 2020 Six Nations campaign – but that they will have to get their mindset straight.
“The 2019 World Cup showed the best of this England team, but it also showed the challenges that it faces. These players demonstrated they can be the very best in the world, but they have also shown that they are capable of being well-beaten. And they were well-beaten by the French for 63 minutes.”
Nevertheless, he says they have one big advantage over his 2007 team. “When we got back from France after the 2007 final, the first thing I was asked by the Press was what was the most important factor for England going forward. I said stability – and then 24 hours later Brian Ashton was sacked as coach.”
He adds: “The one really important thing that this England squad has is stability, because the main coaches are still in place. That means you can work out what is going to drive you forward, and press the reset button.
“The bar is set pretty high for England, because they are judged now by that high-performance of dismantling teams like New Zealand. That’s why last week was not good enough – and that’s not the fault of Eddie Jones, Steve Borthwick or John Mitchell. That’s everyone’s fault.”
Vickery believes the England squad need to flick the mental switch and rediscover the camaraderie and high energy evident in their best displays. He is still a great believer in passion being a huge factor in success on the field, and says it is up to players rather than coaches to generate it.
“Being passionate is for me the foundation stone. You have to bring that! It’s not about brutality. As Raphael Ibanez rightly said, ‘it’s easy talking about brutality when you are sat in the stands’.
“It’s not about having a scrap, it’s about having the right mindset. International rugby is brutal. So, you have to be ready for the physical confrontation first and foremost – and being ready for the contest is physical and emotional, before you layer on the skills and tactical application.”
He continues: “You are England. Use it, embrace it, show people what you are made of. Learn your lessons, and deliver. If it was not good enough, and you did not execute what you had trained to do, then remind yourself that you have to use every second of a match in which to play Test rugby at the highest level of intensity.”
Outside distractions have to be shelved according to Vickery, with the job at hand the absolute priority. “You have to live in the now. Sometimes we can focus too much on medium and long-term factors, which get in the way. You have to be in the moment, because in a match it might all be different from what you were doing in training.
“Adapting to what is required might mean being brave, solid, bonded – and it will need people to dig-in. You have to be able to respond to the moment, and that’s where you, as players, need to take over and bring your best.”
Vickery’s view on captaincy is similarly clear-cut. “Leadership for me starts with personal standards – it is there in your purpose and actions, and doing your job as part of the team.”
He adds: “That is how it was with the great captains I played with, whether Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio or Dave Sims at Gloucester. Ultimately, it is about performance, and then you add on communication, and the ability to read the game.”
However, he also has a warning for those players who rely on others to lift them. “If you want a captain to be your motivator, main communicator, speech-maker, tactician, and psychologist, then you should not be out there.
“Of course, you need great captains who can inspire by the way they act and speak – but, if when things get tough, you rely on your captain to get you through it, it will be a lonely time.”
Vickery’s assessment of the England pack is that there is competition for places with plenty of strong options available to head coach Jones, and that the scrum should not be written off because of South Africa’s success in the World Cup final.
Vickery is of the opinion that Springbok loose-head Tendai Mtawarira’s hatchet job on England tight-head Dan Cole was the consequence of him being given leeway to scrummage illegally by French referee Jerome Garces.
Vickery learned the hard way about Mtawarira’s ability to get the jump on his opposite number by pushing early after being disrupted throughout the first Test defeat on the 2009 Lions tour, and his sympathies are with Cole.
“Having been on the receiving end of that from ‘The Beast’ myself, it’s a pity we’re still talking about the same issues around the scrum, and referees have to take responsibility. There have been plenty of changes around the scrum laws, but one that has not changed is that you cannot push before the ball is presented.
“Our area of the game is so important, and it is essential that you get two sets of forwards who are positive at the scrum rather than negatively resorting to illegal moves. I have looked at the tapes of the final, and those replays showed that there was movement before the ball was put in at most scrums. Also, I don’t see how anyone could say that Mtawarira was square.”
However, Vickery does not believe it has left a scar on the England scrum. “It’s a proven front row. Kyle Sinckler on his day is one of the best tight-heads in the world, although Harry Williams has been looking lively, and is someone you should always keep an eye on.
“Mako Vunipola is just coming back from injury and is a very experienced loose-head, but Ellis Genge has a huge amount of talent. He’s got character, and his own identity. I like the fact he’s got edge and is a bit different – not an off-the-shelf institutionalised prop. Now I’d like to see him develop and dominate the front row by really taking the next step and push to be number one.
“There is also fresh blood coming in with Tom Dunn at hooker, who is solid, and there are good reports about tight-head Will Stuart, who I haven’t seen play too much.”
The new back row experiment, which has seen Tom Curry take over at No.8 following Billy Vunipola’s forearm injury, should also not be written off prematurely according to Vickery.
“Tom Curry has been outstanding for England, and with Billy out you have to look at other options. Tom is lighter and brings a different dimension in mobility, and maybe there is merit in trying that option – although if you want a like-for-like option for Vunipola, then Nathan Hughes has been playing pretty well for Bristol.”
“I really like the way Lewis Ludlam plays. He is physical, clever at the breakdown, and hard-working. Curry and Sam Underhill have proved themselves at the highest level, and lots of other countries would love that back row.”
Vickery argues that it is all about selecting the right players for the way the coach wants his team to play. “We say we want a big pack with lots of carriers, but the real challenge is that we have to make sure that the forward selections fit your game plan – and allow you to get the best out of those players.”
As for this Six Nations campaign, Vickery’s attitude is that the glass is half full, rather than half empty – however, having captained England in the aftermath of a World Cup final defeat, he does not downplay the difficulties.
“I think it will be a tough Six Nations for England, but I am still excited by this team, and also by the talent that there is coming through in English rugby. What you want to see is a reaction – and not one where we talk about it for four years. Let’s get out there and get after it right now!”
Jones and Farrell could do worse than hire Phil Vickery as their script writer, because his passion is the magic ingredient that was missing in Paris, and it has to be rediscovered if England are to stake their claim in this tournament.