Front row embraces Thompson

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The Independent Online

The front row is the darkest and most unforgiving area in sport. Those who ply their trade at the cutting edge of the scrum are not like other players; they are a breed apart. There is a silent freemasonry among the grunt-and-groan merchants. To qualify for membership you have to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the best. The most exclusive lodges are reserved for those who have stood the test within an exclusive international fraternity.

The best have gone into legend. The Welsh folk singer, Max Boyce, may have waxed lyrical about Gareth, Gerald and JPR, but his greatest respect was for the Pontypool front row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner, who played as a unit in four championship seasons in the 1970s. One enterprising manufacturer of plastic models and mugs sold tens of thousands of his Spitting Image-type Pontypool front row in their Wales strip. Every home in every valley had one.

The Northampton front row has not yet achieved that iconic status, though one of them, Steve Thompson, was converted on the road to Murrayfield by none other than the Scotland coach, Ian McGeechan. When McGeechan was director of rugby at Northampton, he recognised special qualities Thompson brought to his game as a flanker. McGeechan persuaded Thompson to give it a go at hooker. It was like asking Robbie Williams to go back to singing in the clubs. From the glamour of the back row to mastering the dark arts a metre ahead of you. Time will tell, though Thompson could become England's best all-round hooker since John Pullin.

David Powell, a propping contemporary of Pullin's in the Sixties, a Northampton stalwart and a grand master of a Lions' lodge, sees in Thompson a special talent. "Steve came to us, an ordinary lad from a working-class background and, had he not taken to rugby, he might have finished on the wrong side of the tracks," Powell said. "It's wonderful what this game can do for youngsters like Steve. He's bent his back, worked at his skills, and I think he has the aptitude to become one of the very best."

He also has the size. At 6ft 2in, and almost 18 stone, there is plenty to Thompson. Only 23, he has age on his side, which can hardly be said of Dorian West, who will be 35 this year. And though the injured Phil Greening is only three years older than Thompson, the Saints' player has a far greater physical presence than the Wasps' hooker.

With his two club props, Tom Smith and Mattie Stewart, against him, Thompson made an unspectacular, if efficient debut. "I concentrated on getting the basics right," Thompson said. "You have to adjust to a higher pace, but I've always backed myself, and I think it went well."

It went too well for McGeechan, who must have wished he could have completed the conversion by finding Thompson some Scottish antecedents. He does have a girlfriend, Fiona McArthur, with an impeccable Glaswegian background. But Thompson is wedded to England. Had he been on the same side as Smith and Stewart, they would be striking a new tartan in Edinburgh by now.