As the field of potential winners in the LV Cup narrows to four this weekend – and we already know Bath, Northampton and Saracens are in the semi finals – the 2014 Six Nations kicks into gear, and you don’t have to spend long talking to former Gloucester international prop Phil Vickery to realise how much he loves the tournament. He watched the demolition of England in Cardiff last March with Gareth Thomas, and experienced the atmosphere that can, as he put it, “flood” from a city centre into a ground that sits at the heart of it. As a man who had proudly captained his country, Vickery took the defeat on the chin, but revelled in the noise and excitement that projected the appeal of the game to a huge audience.
This time round England have only two home matches, and after facing the French on Saturday night travel to Murrayfield before welcoming Ireland to Twickenham. It’s a sequence that you might think puts England at a disadvantage but Vickery doesn’t agree.
“The balance of the games is only important when it suits people to say so” Phil told me. “Playing France first is no bad thing, because if you’re going to catch them on the hop then that’s the most likely time to do it. Win in Paris, and you’d be hopeful of going to Edinburgh and making it two from two. The sole ambition of Stuart Lancaster and Chris Robshaw ought to be to win all five games. If England have serious ambitions to be a top team then you have to be capable of beating anyone anywhere at any time. There’s no doubt France in Paris is a huge test but it is one England are capable of passing.”
Gloucester supporters at Kingsholm last Saturday will have been delighted to see Elliott Stooke’s rapid rise take another giant step with 30 minutes off the bench for the Saxons in defeat to the Irish Wolfhounds. He starts against Scotland A this weekend, and with over 60 players in the EPS squads and the likes of Stooke still able to be called in, Vickery says Lancaster’s role is akin to a car mechanic with a engine in bits in front of him. It’s about assembling the right pieces in the right order.
“Stuart has widened the base in terms of depth, but there are still a lot of inexperienced guys in there” said Phil, who as a fan worries about the demands for instant success. “You don’t get selected unless you have the talent. Equally, you are never the finished article and you have to understand what the team is good at and what success will be built on. It’s a bit like creating an identity and I don’t think this team has one yet. They probably can’t dominate most of the top packs in the world with driving play so what else are they good at ? We don’t quite know. There are question marks about every team but Stuart has to give these guys a go, try and get them to progress but also back them up.”
The England team for their Six Nations opener against France includes includes two Gloucester players in the starting line-up, Jonny May and Billy Twelvetrees, with a third, Ben Morgan, on the bench. Flanker Matt Kvesic is also in the squad but has not been selected, and Freddie Burns has been dropped into the Saxons team for their game in Glasgow. Vickery says it’s hard to argue with Stuart Lancaster’s selection.
“I would like to have seen Jonny May play in the autumn internationals” Phil went on. ” I’m glad Stuart has given him a chance because he is a match winner and there is no substitute for pace. “Matt Kvesic is a specialist open side but I don’t think he’s performed at a high enough level to get in.2
“The disappointment for me has been Freddie Burns. It looked like we were going to have a rivalry between Burns and Owen Farrell like there was between Stuart Barnes and Rob Andrew, but things haven’t gone well for Freddie and I’m also not sure being behind the Gloucester pack in the first half of the season has helped Billy Twelvetrees either. In a more settled team he’d have had more of a base to work from. I just hope we’ll see him relax into his international role so he can show what he is made of.”
*Phil Vickery in an ambassador for Six Nations sponsors RBS.*
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