Rugby Union: Thomson the import with impact

Saracens have signed another supremely talented South African. But this one is different - this one is qualified to play for England. By Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD makes such a virtue of his own impeccable John Bull credentials that his players suspect him of using the flag of St George as a duvet cover. As a good patriot who sews his loyalties on to his tracksuit sleeve at the start of every season, the national coach is understandably reluctant to go overboard on the subject of Jeremy Thomson, perhaps the most strikingly gifted English-qualified import to arrive here in a decade.

Thomson's family roots are sunk deep in the soil of Hertfordshire, but Woodward considers him more Pietermaritzburg than Potters Bar. And with good reason. Thomson's rugby education - his entire education, come to that - was an exclusively South African concern; he played for South African Schools and the South African Defence Force, won Under-20 honours with Northern Transvaal, played in the Currie Cup alongside Francois Pienaar in Johannesburg in 1992 and made a near-record 156 senior appearances for Natal.

And anyway, Thomson is 31 and well past the spring chicken stage. Why on earth pick him? How about talent, for starters? On the strength of a single Premiership match for Saracens, albeit one in which he made a befuddled Northampton midfield look like a herd of carthorses, Thomson is being talked up as a contender for Woodward's autumn squad. Hype is a strictly temporary commodity, of course, but class is entirely permanent.

Besides, England are hardly in a position to throw around rejection slips like so much confetti. The absence of Will Greenwood and Jeremy Guscott from the summer tour of the southern hemisphere underlined the uncomfortable fact that the midfield cupboard has a definite Mother Hubbardish look to it and any plans the coach may have to play Mike Catt, another product of the Rainbow Nation, at centre depends on either Paul Grayson or Jonny Wilkinson cutting the hot stuff at outside-half. Don't hold your breath, Clive.

"I haven't looked too far into the qualification situation but my mother was born in Watford, I still have relatives living here and everyone tells me I'm okay," said Thomson. "But I can honestly say that Saracens is my only priority and I'm concentrating on settling in and getting some experience of English conditions. I never won a Springbok cap - I toured with the Boks in '96 without making the Test side - and I wouldn't say no to England if they showed interest in me. It's not really in my hands, though, so I've pushed it to the back of my mind."

All the same, he will find the spotlight far more difficult to sidestep than the midfield defence he spent last Sunday tearing to shreds. To start with, he plays in this afternoon's "rebel" match between Cardiff and Saracens at the Arms Park, a fixture that flies directly in the face of union disapproval and has generated a spectacular amount of interest.

"You simply can't afford to let the distractions affect your preparations. I won't approach the match as a rebel game any more than I'll approach it as a friendly, even though it has been billed as such. At this level, attitude is everything. Having spent the best part of 10 years playing top-level rugby in South Africa, where rugby politics are not exactly unheard of, I've learned to concentrate purely and simply on playing every game to the best of my ability. Other people can get on with the arguing."

There is no argument whatsoever over the quality of Thomson's curriculum vitae. Pienaar, now head coach at Saracens, considered him South Africa's best Super 12 centre in the 1996 tournament and singled him out as a ready- made replacement for the great Philippe Sella, who retired at the end of last season. "The time was right to look towards the English Premiership as a new challenge and one or two clubs had shown an interest, but Francois called me personally and we reached an agreement very quickly. There aren't many South Africans who can resist the Pienaar approach.

"But, while the presence of Springboks like Francois and Gavin Johnson is a tremendous help to me, I've also been hugely impressed by the whole Saracens set-up. It's a very professional concern and I'm not overstating the case when I say there is a real desire to play fast, attractive, attacking rugby along Super 12 lines. The pace of our game against Northampton surprised me and, while there was a little more space than I'd grown used to back in Natal, legitimate comparisons can be drawn between the two.

"To my mind, the British game as a whole will have a very exciting future once the right competitive structures are put in place. I played some rugby with John Plumtree, who is now coaching Swansea, and he is convinced that the top Welsh clubs can only benefit from regular contact with the leading English sides. I'm sure we'll see evidence of that when we take on Cardiff. I've toured Wales with South Africa and I'll be astonished if we find ourselves in anything other than a very hard contest."

If Thomson carries on in Northampton vein, the contest for places in England's midfield will be every bit as intense as this afternoon's rumble on the banks of the River Taff. The thought of two thirtysomething Jeremys in midfield tandem may not do much for Woodward's youth policy but, when World Cups are there to be won, idealism tends to disappear through the nearest window.