Few rugby players have experienced the highs and lows of playing on Australian soil quite like former England and Lions prop Phil Vickery.
In 2003 Vickery was a pivotal member of the England team that lifted the World Cup in the Aussie’s backyard, redemption for a man whose first taste of oversees rugby was the infamous Southern Hemisphere ‘Tour of Hell’ in 1998, which included four straight Test defeats, the first by a record margin of 76-0 to Australia in Brisbane.
With such contrasting experiences Vickery is well placed to dissect the current Lions squad’s chances of achieving success Down Under, and he is confident Warren Gatland’s side have the tools needed to come away with victory.
“I think the Lions are going to win the series 2-1. Not just in my heart, but in my head as well. They’ve got enough experience, enough firepower. But most importantly, they’ve got the big game players who know how to win games. That’s what will give them the edge.”
Despite his confidence Vickery is well aware defeating the Wallabies in Australia requires more than just a talented set of players.
“With England in 2003 we went over and beat New Zealand and Australia before the World Cup. Those victories made us confident we could go away and beat the Southern Hemisphere sides. This Lions team needs to believe they can do that.”
Vickery is clearly impressed with the squad Warren Gatland has put together and feels the English contingent can make their mark, especially in the front row.
“Dan Cole has been a standout performer for England for a couple of years on the tight head side, and the hooker position is still up for grabs with Tom Youngs and Richard Hibbard both good ball carriers.”
“The disappointment is on the loose head side, with Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy missing, but that will give Mako Vunipola, Matt Stevens or Alex Corbisiero an opportunity to come in and really show what they are made of.”
Although there is a possibility we could see England feature heavily in the front row Vickery has little doubt it will be Wales who dominate the back row forwards.
“I think we’ll see Warburton and Tipuric starting together with Toby Faletau at No 8. Their athleticism around the field and passing ability will lend itself to playing in Australia: fast games with multiple phases.”
The predicted inclusion of Tipuric and Warburton raises questions over whether the latter will wear his favoured No 7 shirt, but Vickery believes Gatland has the ability to get the squad pulling in the same direction regardless of the difficult selection decisions that lie ahead.
“Creating a great atmosphere and bringing people together is one of Warren’s greatest assets. Getting players to focus on the job at hand and bringing a sense of normality to it all.”
Gatland’s ability to focus his player’s minds has been tested this week, with Australia coach Robbie Deans labelling the Lions ‘paranoid’ in the wake of the recent spying row. A very different proposition to when Vickery was last on a Lions tour.
“You didn’t need to be a spy when we were out there - we did all our line out drills in public parks! I’m sure spying goes on, but even if you know what’s coming you need to be able to stop the opposition and execute your own game plan.”
Warren Gatland will be hoping his Lions can do just that.