THE BIG INTERVIEW: England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Phil Vickery reflects on the glory

Craig Salmon talks to former England rugby union captain, British Lion and 2003 World Cup winner Phil Vickery ahead of his visit to Lancaster next month

By Craig Salmon
Friday, 28th January 2022, 4:45 pm

Twenty-two-year-old Phil Vickery threw his soiled and bloodied England jersey dejectedly into the middle of the visitors’ dressing room at “The Cauldron” in Brisbane.

Sitting down on the bench, with elbows resting on his knees and his head bowed, the tighthead prop peered up to the man sat beside him – a certain Jonny Wilkinson.

Looking equally crestfallen, no words needed to be exchanged as the pair reflected on England’s worst ever result at international level.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Phil Vickery in action for England during a Six Nations match against France at Twickenham in 2009 (Getty Images)

Australia’s 76-0 mauling of Clive Woodward’s men in the summer of 1998 was – and remains – the biggest margin of defeat ever inflicted on the national team.

The loss to the Wallabies was the first of several defeats for England that summer on the Southern Hemisphere – the trip was later dubbed the “Tour from Hell”.

Of course, there were mitigating factors behind the nadir of ’98.

Shorn of several big-named players due to injury and unavailability, Woodward was forced into calling up youngsters with little to no experience for the trip.

Five players made their debuts against the Aussies, while 19-year-old Wilkinson was handed his first international start after making just one substitute appearance previously.

Vickery’s inexperience at international level was just as pronounced – it was only his second appearance after making his debut in a 60-26 win over Wales in the Six Nations at Twickenham the previous winter.

However, having been part of one of the worst results in English rugby union history, Vickery and Wilkinson could have been forgiven for thinking in the immediate aftermath that their careers at the highest level were over before they had barely begun.

For some on the trip that would prove to be the case as players such as Steve Ravenscroft, Rob Fidler, Jos Baxendell, Spencer Brown and Tom Beim never pulled on the Red Rose again.

Fortunately for Vickery and Wilkinson, their role in the debacle of Brisbane would not have any lasting damage on their future opportunities.

Indeed, their careers came full circle just over five years later when they were part of an England team which got the better of the old enemy Down Under – on the greatest stage of all, the World Cup final.

The pair were members of the all-conquering England team – led by captain Martin Johnson – which lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003.

Wilkinson’s famous last-ditch drop goal sealed a 20-17 victory in Sydney.

The low of the “Tour from Hell” could not have been more contrasting to the high of England’s first and, as it stands, only World Cup victory.

Former Gloucester and London Wasps ace Vickery – who later went on to become England captain himself – looks back on that chastening experience in 1998 as a pivotal moment in his career – one which propelled him ultimately to sporting immortality.

“What a lot of people don’t talk about is my second cap for England was Jonny Wilkinson’s first full game at international level,” said Vickery, who will be heading to Lancashire next month for an”Audience with Phil Vickery” at the Grand Theatre, in Lancaster.

“We played Australia on the summer tour of 1998 and we lost that game 76-0. Myself and Jonny talk about that game even now. I remember us both thinking after that game. ‘What do we want to be? What do we want to get out of all this?’

“I am not saying that game or that moment was the reason why he was able to kick the drop goal in the World Cup final, but you do look at things in isolation in your career.

“You talk about moments; I think you go through lots of experiences which ultimately help you achieve what we achieved.

“What also gets forgotten about is Jonny kicked that drop goal with his weaker right foot. But that was all down to hours and hours of practice, execution, dedication. He had to do that and I was there. I saw it.

“We both did what we had to do to get better.”

It is coming up to 20 years since England won the World Cup and Vickery – who grew up on the family farm in Cornwall and has since moved into the restaurant trade after retiring from rugby – admits hardly a day goes by when he does not think about the World Cup win or he is not reminded of it.

He said: “I was at a food factory the other day, there was a guy there who told me exactly where he was during the final, what he was wearing, who he was with, what he was eating and drinking.

“It makes you laugh inside in a funny way but it is an absolute privilege to be a sportsman who achieves things which brings joy to others.

“It is the effect that is has on people. To have the privilege of affecting people’s lives like that is very special.

“I think that is what is important to remember as a sportsman. People are actually living your journey.

“That is something I actually used to talk about a lot in the changing room when I became England captain.

“Sometimes when things are not going quite so well, sport is not a nice place to be but the majority of people are generally with you and willing you on to do well.

“Yes there is pressure, but 99% of the people want you to do well and that’s inspiring for a sportsperson. That’s a positive that you can use.”

Vickery revealed that he can often get emotional when he thinks about the World Cup success.

“It’s 19 years ago but I don’t feel 19 years older, although I probably look it,” said Vickery.

“But even now, if I am in a room and one of my England team-mates walks in, then the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s just something which naturally happens. We achieved something so special.

“The one big memory I have of the final is the nerves and the enormity of the occasion. We were playing Australia in Australia in a World Cup final.

“I remember running out into the stadium and seeing the rows and rows of white shirts in the crowd, it’s something which makes me emotional thinking about now.”

Vickery, whose first taste of captaincy was in 2002 when he guided England to victory in Argentina, became permanent skipper in 2007 as England prepared to defend their World Cup crown in France.

With many of the stalwarts from four years earlier long retired, England were not quite the force they once were although players such as Wilkinson and the try scorer in the final Jason Robinson remained.

However, under Brian Ashton as head coach, they reached the final after shock wins over Australia, in the quarter-finals, and the hosts at the last four stage.

Unfortunately, they fell at the final hurdle as South Africa proved too strong, winning 15-5 at the Stade de France.

“Repeating the magical feats of previous years was always going to be difficult,” said Vickery, who made five appearances for the British and Irish Lions.

“But it was a huge honour for me to captain my country in a World Cup final.”

Phil Vickery is heading to Lancashire next month to talk about his career as an England rugby union international. The son of a dairy farmer in Cornwall, the 45-year-old has gone back to his roots since retiring from the sport. He won Celebrity Masterchef in 2011 and has recently opened a restaurant, called No.3 – a tribute to the number he used to wear on the back of his rugby jersey – in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He will be appearing at the Grand Theatre, in Lancaster, on Thursday, February 3, starting at 7-30 pm. Tickets cost £24. Vickery said: “I love reminiscing about my career. It’s something I really enjoy. One of the most important things for me is sharing those moments with people.”