Rob Vickers is in line to make his 250th appearance for Newcastle Falcons on Sunday when they host Russian champions Enisei-STM in the European Challenge Cup, the veteran prop still more than holding his own for the in-form Kingston Park side.
Newcastle are going for their seventh successive victory in all competitions, striving to maintain their unbeaten start in Europe, where they sit top of Pool One with four wins from four.
“It has been incredible, really,” says Vickers, the 36-year-old Yorkshireman who made his first team debut in October 2006, playing the first half of his career at hooker before sliding across the front row to loose-head prop.
“I remember my first game was away at Montauban in the Challenge Cup, then my first start was at Leeds when they set a Premiership record for the quickest ever try, scoring against us straight from the kick-off. That was some beginning to my career and by no means did I think I’d make 250, but I’ve enjoyed every moment along the way.
“I don’t think I’d still be here as a professional player if I hadn’t made the transition to prop, and it was a bit of a coincidence, to be honest, how it all came about. Jonny Golding had retired, we’d suffered a few injuries and through pre-season there was an opportunity to try it. Scott Lawson had just come in as an established international at hooker so I thought I’d give it a go, and my first start as a prop was away to Worcester against a British and Irish Lions tight head in Euan Murray.
“It was another baptism of fire and a very sharp learning curve, but the club has evolved and I’ve hopefully evolved with it.
“It has been an incredible journey, not without its difficult times, and I’ll be honest in saying there have been points where I’ve considered my options in terms of potentially moving on. One thing I always wanted to do though was to leave the club in a different place to where it was when I came here, and hopefully we’re moving in the right direction towards that now.”
Sitting in the top half of the Premiership, unbeaten in both cups and with average home crowds on the up, the feelgood factor at Kingston Park was in full evidence last weekend as they humbled Exeter Chiefs.
“That was a huge statement for us,” says Vickers, who started at loose-head in the 28-20 triumph.
“First and foremost we were delighted with the win against such a good side – the curent champions and league leaders.
“Within that there were still parts of the performance which weren’t perfect, as there always is, and we’re not saying we’ve cracked it. We still have to turn up every week having given our best in training, do our homework on the game and bring that same huge effort into match day. It’s always about the next game rather than the previous one, but clearly it’s nice to have had a performance and a result like we did last weekend.”
Moving into a month of cup games as the league goes on the back burner, Vickers says: “Our team will change slightly over the next four weeks, with certain guys getting their chance at various times.
“We have a big squad and guys have been working hard towards taking these opportunities, and it’s a huge chance for people to stake a claim for the next Premiership block in a month’s time.
“Young players like Adam Radwan and Simon and Uzokwe are among those who have got their chance this weekend, and they can draw inspiration from lads who are a couple of years ahead of them like Will Witty, Callum Chick and a number of others.
“Those boys got their chance in the cups a couple of years ago and have really gone on to become more established, and it’s showing the way for players like Adam and Simon. If you keep your head down and work hard, stay patient and take your chances then the opportunity to play first team rugby is there, and we’re at a club where you get recognised for that. The coaches aren’t afraid to chuck guys in who are doing well, and they’ll support them.”
On full guard against an Enisei team who defeated the Falcons in Russia two years ago, he adds: “It won’t be easy on Sunday and we’re treating Enisei with the same respect we would treat any team we play against.
“We’ve done our analysis on them, we’ve trained hard and they’re no mugs. They’re big blokes, they’re well organised and they have a lot of talent, so we’re under no illusions about just needing to turn up.”
Hopeful of appearance number 250 as he sits in wait on the bench, Vickers says: “It would be nice if it was to come on Sunday, but that’s down to Dean Richards and the coaching staff on the day.
“My family will be at the game and I’d love to do it in front of our own supporters, but the team has to come first and I’ll just be delighted to reach that milestone wherever it ends up being.”
Tickets for Sunday’s game are available by calling 0871 226 6060 or clicking here.