Crompton the time machine rolls back years to put fire into Bristol boiler room

Bristol's tight-head veteran has spent years at rugby's brutal coalface but, he tells Chris Hewett, a centre's life is harder
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As Phil Vickery, the most orthopaedically challenged prop forward in English rugby, was being confirmed as national captain for the defence of the World Cup in France this autumn while receiving treatment for what he politely described as a "numb bum", the most resilient prop in the domestic game was preparing for another tour of duty in that dark den of iniquity known as the front row of the scrum - his 34th out of a possible 35 since the beginning of last season. Darren Crompton and his more celebrated rival have things in common: for starters, they both hail from the far south-west and are blessed with faces only a mother could love. But over the decade or so of professional union, they have moved in different orbits.

Vickery has tasted the nectar and laid hands on the glittering prizes - a cup final victory with Gloucester, a tour of Australia with the Lions, a world title with the red-rose army - while spending approximately 65 per cent of his career confined to a hospital bed or stretched out on the physiotherapist's slab. Crompton, on the other hand, has found himself on the books of two clubs just as they were going bust - "It seems to me," he admitted this week, "that I'm a bit of a Jonah" - yet uncomplainingly serves month on month, season on season, at the most serrated of sporting sharp ends while receiving next to nothing in the way of public recognition. He did manage one trip with the England team, but that was the "tour from hell" in 1998. The best part of that particular episode was that he failed to make the Test side. There is a god, after all.

He is not even the most renowned member of the greybearded tight-five unit that has given Bristol their unlikely advantage of the top of the Premiership table - an advantage they will attempt to protect and extend against Northampton at the Memorial Ground tomorrow. The quintet in question fall into two categories. David Hilton, Mark Regan and Gareth Llewellyn are thirty-something former internationals who appear to have sourced a private supply of the elixir of youth. Roy Winters and Crompton have similar characteristics, apart from the international bit. Yet they are every bit as influential. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that without Crompton's contribution the West Countrymen would not be the force they are at present. In last season's Premiership, he was the only tight-head to start every game. No one else came close.

Top-quality English tight-head specialists are rarer than radium these days. Gloucester have an Italian and a Frenchman in their match-day squad; London Irish and Saracens have taken the Springbok option; Northampton have a sort of Englishman in the impressive Pat Barnard, but when all is said and done his veins run with South African blood. Bath are deep in Old Mother Hubbard territory, having lost Matt Stevens (another Bokke type) and Duncan Bell to injury. Suddenly, everyone wishes Crompton was theirs. He has waited a long time for the last laugh, but his sides are splitting now. How is it done, then? How does a prop in his 35th year outperform front-rowers up to a decade-and-a-half his junior, including a litter of young pups - Wayne Thompson, Jason Hobson, Mark Irish - at his own club?

"They can be a handful in training, those fit lads," he said. "In all seriousness, they're very good players and they'll do well for Bristol over the next few years. Why am I still being picked? Ask the coaches. I will say this, though: I believe a prop who has learnt well, not rushed things and enjoyed good luck with injuries will naturally grow stronger well into his thirties. Two of the props I found most troublesome down the years, Garry Pagel [the South African who played for Northampton] and Roberto Grau [the Argentine who spent a number of seasons with Saracens], came to the Premiership as older players and made everyone else suffer. They were perfect examples of players offering more as the years went by, rather than less.

"It's a funny thing - a unique thing, really - because it's not about what goes on in the gym. A player in my position has to work on his conditioning, obviously, but the muscles a prop uses in a game are not necessarily the muscles that benefit from a weights programme, however advanced it may be. One way or another, I've had the benefit of being allowed to do things the right way. I won't continue to improve indefinitely, but I think I'm a better player now than I was a couple of seasons ago."

Very philosophical. But even so, Crompton's is some record, given that he plays in the most demanding position going. "Actually, I'm not sure that's true," he argued. "If you want my opinion, centre is the toughest position these days. Two big, fit, fast blokes, standing 20 metres apart and crashing into each other? I don't think I'd fancy it. There again, I don't suppose it's an experience I'm likely to have."

Crompton has always been a good player. Very good, in fact. He played England age-group rugby while a schoolboy in Devon - unusually, he spent two seasons with the under-18s, featuring in the same sides as Kyran Bracken and Matthew Dawson, Tony Diprose and Richard Hill. He might have joined Bristol while still in his teens; the late Elwyn Price, as astute a talent-spotter as ever walked this rugby earth, spotted him early and went dangerously close to spontaneous combustion when the youngster opted for Bath instead.

"I had a night's training with Bristol on the Monday, then went to Bath on the Wednesday," Crompton recalled. "I seems silly, looking back on it, but Bath made me feel a lot more welcome. Down at the Rec, one or two of the really big names made a point of coming across and chatting to me. At Bristol, it was a case of 'Who are you? Darren Crompton? Oh, right'. I joined Bath at 19 and stayed until I was 23. During those four years, I learnt a hell of a lot. People like Gareth Chilcott were around at the start, and with those blokes, you listened to everything and said nothing. When the game went professional, there was a big opportunity for me at Richmond, and I took it. That was the start of my wanderings."

Richmond disappeared down the financial tubes in 1999, so Crompton returned to the West Country for a first stint with Bristol. When they took the fast road to ruin a few years later, he found himself part of a second exodus and surfaced at Cardiff. After a season at the Arms Park, he heard that Bristol had sorted themselves out and made the return journey with a happy heart and a spring in his step.

"I love the place," he agreed. "Having said what I've said about the old days, there is something special about Bristol now - a real connection between the players and the public that I'm not sure exists in too many other Premiership clubs. We agreed as a squad that we'd make a point of going into the bar after a game, rather than push off somewhere else and keep ourselves to ourselves. So after we've done the corporate stuff and had a bite to eat, we mix with the supporters for a while. As a result, there's a really good atmosphere at the ground on match day. It's noisy and vibrant and enthusiastic, and it rubs off on the team."

Should Crompton go full term on his current contract, which has another two-and-a-half years to run, he will still be doing whatever it is he does at the ripe old age of 37. Precious few players could say as much, or even imagine saying it. Is he serious? "Absolutely," he replied. "I'll play professional rugby for as long as I can drag myself on to the field, or for as long as I'm wanted. I've taken one or two steps in terms of retirement planning - a night course as a gas pipe fitter, another one on the electrical side of things. You have to prepare yourself for the inevitable, because all this will end one day." What about coaching? "Maybe, maybe not. I'll get my qualifications and then have a think. I'm not thinking about it yet, though. The Premiership is a pretty relentless place to be, and if you start getting distracted you're no good to anyone."

Any regrets? A full England cap would have been nice, surely. After all, he was bred for it. "I don't feel as though I missed out - certainly, I don't waste time thinking about it and feeling sorry for myself. I went on my tour, which was memorable, even though it was that '98 trip. What matters to me is Bristol and what happens over the rest of the season. Specifically, I'm interested in what happens against Northampton. We're week-by-week people, basically. It's got us this far. Let's see if it gets us a little bit further."