French connection is no barrier for Thompson

Brive hooker's return to England squad gives hope to stars lured abroad
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The Independent Online

It would have been a long road back for Steve Thompson had he still been playing his rugby at Northampton. By making it all the way back from Brive, a club so deeply concealed in one of the more anonymous departments of France that it barely registered on the England hierarchy's radar until a few months ago, the 30-year-old front-rower (once retired) has proved himself one of sport's great survivors. Who would have thought it?

England's first-choice hooker during the triumphant World Cup campaign in 2003 and a Lions Test forward in New Zealand some 19 months later, Thompson has two people to thank for his unexpected return to the national squad. The first is Lee Mears, the present red-rose incumbent, whose selection for the latest Lions vintage left Martin Johnson and his fellow selectors with a vacancy at the fulcrum of the scrum. The second is Andy Goode, the outside-half who proved that a move to Brive was not necessarily a move to Nowheresville.

Thompson suffered a serious neck injury in 2007 and initially joined forces with the former European champions from the Correze as a "recruitment advisor" and scrum technician. It was only after seeking a second opinion, followed by third and fourth ones, that he risked a return to the playing field later that year. Happily, it has worked out for him. But for Goode, however, he would not have entered Johnson's thinking for the business at hand.

Plenty has been said, much of it by the Rugby Football Union and almost all of it alarmist, about current internationals crossing the Channel in search of euro-riches. Many have been the threats and warnings from a red-rose management petrified that access to, and control over, their prize assets might be about to diminish just as attention turns to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. Would the paymasters of Stade Français or Toulon allow their costly recruits to spend large chunks of the season training with England, they asked? Would the French doctors see eye to eye with their counterparts at Twickenham, who have a hard enough job finding common ground with medical teams at the Premiership clubs?

Yet throughout the recent Six Nations programme, Johnson placed a large degree of faith in Goode, without even bothering to watch his one-time Leicester club-mate in the flesh. The Brive management assured England that they wanted their principal goal-kicker to play international rugby and promised to make it as easy as possible for him to do so. They were true to their word. When Johnson needed him, Goode was always there. The same will go for Thompson if he performs well enough over the coming weeks to merit a place in the Elite Player Squad for next season.

For all the RFU's bluster over not picking from abroad, it seems Johnson has quietly reached a different conclusion. He could, after all, have picked the highly-rated Wasps hooker Rob Webber to understudy Dylan Hartley and George Chuter during the series against Argentina, rather than keep him in the Saxons squad for the Churchill Cup tournament.

Who, besides Thompson, will be celebrating this development? James Haskell and Tom Palmer, for starters. They will be playing in Paris with Stade Français next season. Not to mention the two England centres, Riki Flutey and Jamie Noon, who have booked in with Goode and Thompson, and a certain Jonny Wilkinson, who confirmed his long-anticipated move to Toulon on Monday. Wilkinson may even rekindle his enthusiasm sufficiently to take another shot at Test rugby. If not, £750,000 a year will at least ease the frustration.

47

The number of England caps Thompson has won, the last coming in March 2006.

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