RUGBY UNION: Thompson under pressure in insanity of front-row war

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND ARE still celebrating the news that William Servat, the sensational hooker from Toulouse, has been ditched from the French side for this weekend's Six Nations match at Twickenham, apparently on account of his dodgy line-out throwing. The irony of the decision has certainly not been lost on Steve Thompson, who confidently expected to find himself in direct opposition to Servat on Sunday. If the red rose selectors had followed the logic of Les Bleus, the Northampton forward would have been out on his ear long ago.

Thompson's own marksmanship from the touchline is under renewed scrutiny following a wayward effort, more Eric Sykes than Eric Bristow, against Wales at the Millennium Stadium six days ago. Andy Robinson, the head coach, described the big Midlander's inaccuracies as "disappointing" - Robbo-speak for "diabolical" - and it is reasonable to suggest that a wild performance against the French, armed as they are with Fabien Pelous and Jerome Thion, will leave England a long way up the Thames without a paddle, just as it did when the Irish stormed Twickenham a little under a year ago.

"It's life, isn't it?" Thompson said with a sigh yesterday. "People like to identify the weaknesses in an individual's game, and I have a reputation for not hitting my targets at the line-out. Well, Keith Wood had that reputation as well, and I don't think he was too bad a player. Actually, we had better statistics than the Welsh in Cardiff, but no one is talking about their line-out. Yes, there were a couple of overthrows - I felt like a golfer hitting the ball too sweetly - and one badly timed lift, which wasn't really down to me. I'm there to be shot at, but it's water off a duck's back. I certainly won't be disappearing into my shell. I'm at the top of my career now and I intend to enjoy myself."

As he then admitted that he must be "stupid" to enjoy scrummaging against the French, whose decision to run the Sale hooker Sebastien Bruno and the Perpignan tight-head prop Nicolas Mas alongside the Stade Francais loose head Sylvian Marconnet amounts to a declaration of outright hostility, Thompson's train of thought was in the grand front-row tradition. The harder it gets, the more joy there is to be had.

"The French are so passionate about their scrummaging, and they've picked a unit designed to out-scrum us on Sunday," he agreed. "I was a little surprised when they left out Servat. I read somewhere that he was out of sorts during last weekend's game against Scotland, but it seemed to me that he was running around like a maniac. Bruno is a strong player, though. I've faced him in the Premiership this season and he's a big scrummager. It should be a fun part of the contest."

For his part, Bruno described the prospect as "pure bliss". They're completely mad, these people.

Jason Robinson, the England captain, may be many things, but crazy is not obviously one of them. He knows his team flopped badly in Cardiff, and that the back division in which he plays the principal attacking role failed to fire so much as a blank, let alone a live bullet. In truth, it was a bad day at the office all round - "We under-performed, from one to 15," he agreed yesterday - but while Thompson declined to blame the poverty of England's kicking game for the forwards' inability to get amongst the Red Dragonhood as they had planned, Robinson was less reluctant to point the finger at the pack.

"I was very disappointed with my own contribution, but I can't do much without the ball," he said, sharply. "We had a very good week's training leading into Cardiff, but we didn't play. We didn't ask questions of the Welsh team, we didn't run them about, we didn't threaten them at all. But it was an on-the-day thing. I have no doubt that we should have won the game, just as I have no doubt that we have the players to win this match. Both England and France played poorly last week, the difference being that France got a win out of it. As they're unlikely to play against us as they played against the Scots, we'll have to perform under pressure. But then, that's what we're about."

Talking of the Scots, the head coach, Matt Williams, has named an unchanged side for tomorrow's match with Ireland in Dublin. "It's a justified reward for a very positive effort from everyone involved in Paris," he said. The Irish, however, will be without their inspirational captain, Brian O'Driscoll, who has not recovered from the hamstring injury he sustained last weekend.

Williams considered changes after reviewing his side's self-immolation in the final few minutes of the opening contest, but resisted the temptation. "We need cohesion, because we're up against the tournament favourites," he explained.

The Welsh blind-side flanker Dafydd Jones will miss tomorrow's game against Italy with a groin strain, so Jonathan Thomas comes into the back row.

Scotland's `Le Petit General', page 54

Scotland team, Digest, page 55