Australian rugby has struggled in various areas but for many decades it has been blessed to have had industrious, dominant second-rowers who made a difference. In the 1930s and 40s there was Graham Cooke; the 50s, Alan Cameron and Tony ‘Slaggy’ Miller; the swinging 60s, it was Rob Heming, Dick Thornett and Peter Crittle; the 70s, Stu Gregory and David Hillhouse; the 80s, Steve Williams, Steve Cutler and Bill Campbell; the 90s, John Eales and David Giffin.
In more recent years, the standout was an import — a South African recruit who would rank high up on the list of the best locks the Wallabies have fielded. Dan Vickerman would easily sit in my list of the top 10 Wallabies second-rowers of all time.
Dan Vickerman was a quality footballer, and a quality person.
Like so many top-shelf sportsmen, there were contrasts. On the field, he was combative, irritable, forever focused and a fearsome competitor at set-piece time. There was a touch of the white-line fever about him. Few have been more committed to doing their best for Australia. Off the field, he was the gentleman, with the emphasis on gentle.
Whenever he competed against the Springboks, his former countrymen were ever wary, having to change their lineout calls, as the Cape Townian could decipher their team messages which were made in Afrikaans. He relished playing against his own. The All Blacks always respected him, and that doesn’t come easy.
And he had a certain way — especially in Australia — of being in victorious green and gold outfits. Vickerman’s Test record in Australia is excellent: 26 Test wins in 32 home internationals, for a success rate of 81 percent. Overall it is a creditable 61 percent, with 38 wins and one draw from 63 Tests under eight different Australian captains (Phil Waugh, George Smith, Nathan Sharpe, Stirling Mortlock, James Horwill, George Gregan, Will Genia and Rocky Elsom) and three coaches, (Eddie Jones, John Connolly and Robbie Deans) during a period (2002-2011) when the national team had its fair share of slumps. Deans, in particular, knew how good he was, and he did everything he could to get him back to Australia and recall him to the Test ranks when his three years of study at Cambridge University were up.
Vickerman looked the intellect, and you can easily imagine this polite, bespectacled man striding through the streets and lanes of Cambridge to attend the next lecture in his pursuit of a degree in Land Economy. He also had a sense of fun. Possessing a wicked sense of humour, during his time with the Waratahs he came up with some of the best nicknames — especially for those officials of whom he was suspicious. Unbeknown to several officials, including some who have left Waratahland for other Super Rugby franchises, they are still known among the media and playing ranks by the hilarious monikers which had been provided by Vicks.
There was a gentle side. His teammates loved poking fun at him as one of his pride and joys was his small white French dancing dog named Mollie. There was concern before one 2011 Rugby World Cup match that Vickerman would be distracted as Mollie required a major knee operation. So, it was with delight that one of his Test front-row teammates informed us just two days before the Test: “Mollie’s back in the park running around. The rehab has gone well. Dan’s very happy. We’re back on track.”
In his early days, Gentle Dan was wary of the media. His caution may have had something to do with the Brumbies’ ‘Melrose Place’ environment he lived in when he first moved to Australia, as that franchise delighted in a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality. Even past Brumbies coaches admitted that they used the ‘small-town mentality’ line, and how the Sydney and Brisbane media were out to get them, to psyche up their troops. And to good effect.
His relationship with the press improved when he moved to the Waratahs and Sydney University. He was always good fun to interview: Courteous, thoughtful, with glimpses of his oh-so-dry wit. He always deliberated on what he said to make certain that what he did say made the necessary point; there were no bland statements. He was someone who thought deeply about football and life. He was also someone deeply admired within the playing ranks. His mates were many.
My last sighting of Dan Vickerman came a year or so ago, when he was in the parkland outside North Sydney Oval advising Sydney Uni players who were warming up before a club game. As usual, his instructions weren’t loud; they were more soft and precise. Mr Chips helping his flock.
Sadly, he has left us far too soon.