Steve Thompson:'I'm as fit as I was in 2003'

Two years ago, doctors told Steve Thompson his career was over. Now the World Cup-winner is playing for England again.
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The Independent Online

Rugby injuries? They're not as catastrophic as some people make out, despite the doom and gloom surrounding the England squad in its orthopaedically challenged state.

Ask Steve Thompson, who suffered a career-ending one that turned out to be nothing of the sort. The World Cup-winning hooker will reclaim his place in the middle of the red-rose front row when the Wallabies visit Twickenham this weekend, and the way he tells it, the serious neck condition he picked up two years ago has made him stronger rather than weaker.

Back in 2007, when he first found himself suffering from what might be called the "scrummager's plague", he had just about had his fill anyway. "I'd been playing non-stop rugby for years," he said yesterday, "and if I'm honest, it came as a relief when the doctor said 'no more'. I never dreamed I would say such a thing, but that's what it had come to. Of course, you never know how good something is until you lose it and after a while, I felt very low – low enough to seek a second opinion."

By that time, he had embarked on a coaching career with the French club Brive, and as he settled into his new surroundings – dramatically different from downtown Northampton, where he had played all his senior rugby – he found the old fires starting to smoulder anew. "I sought advice from another doctor, and if he'd told me 'no way', I'd have accepted it," he recalled. "But he saw no reason why I shouldn't play again, so I started getting back into it.

"I'll always be grateful to the people at Brive, who believed in me all the way through my comeback and provided me with a new focus for my rugby. Without them, I wouldn't be here now. When I first began playing there, I weighed more than 21st, yet they still stuck with me. Now, I'm under 18st and fighting fit – as fit as I've ever been, I'd say. My body fat is down to 16 per cent, which might be quite high for some people but is pretty low for me, while I have almost 90 per cent movement in my neck, up from 40 per cent at the worst point. The figures stack up nicely."

Just as importantly, Thompson is in good shape mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. "I was talking about this over a pint with Jonny Wilkinson," he said, before registering the shock on the faces of his audience and adding: "Well, I had a beer; he had a Coke. Anyway, it seems he feels the same way about his move to France as I do about mine. We're both more relaxed, I think. We've both left a degree of pressure behind us and found a better balance."

England manager Martin Johnson and the specialist scrummaging coach, Graham Rowntree, agree with Thompson's self-diagnosis. Both men played alongside the hooker in his pomp – Johnson and Thompson were part of the tight-forward unit that drove England to World Cup glory in Sydney six years ago – and both consider him capable of reproducing the form that briefly made him the most dynamic No 2 in the game.

"Steve's leadership qualities have come to the fore over the last couple of weeks," said Johnson, who selected Thompson ahead of Dylan Hartley, partly on account of the latter's recent struggles with a troublesome hamstring. "He was one of the younger guys in the 2003 group, but he's been through a lot since then and he's bringing that experience to bear." Rowntree, meanwhile, believes Thompson's scrummaging has improved. "I've been watching him closely and I'm really impressed with his contribution in all sorts of ways," said the former prop. "I think he can get back up to where he was in '03."

Not that Thompson intends to trade on the World Cup success during this remarkable second coming of his. "It's as though I'm starting again – certainly, I feel like I'll be winning my first cap rather than my 49th," he said. "Once I'd decided to come out of retirement, it was always my target to play for England again. The way I saw it, there was no point coming back at all if I wasn't going to push it all the way. But to do this properly, I felt I had to forget about 2003, to put it behind me. Maybe I'll sit down and remember it in a few years' time, when I start drinking again."

Ironically enough, it was Thompson who played a significant part in persuading Hartley, understandably disappointed not to be starting against the Wallabies, to ditch Worcester and join Northampton back in 2005. "I remember dropping Dylan off at the train station and telling him he'd be making the right decision if he came to us," he said. "I thought then that he had what it takes to be one of the best hookers in the game and I still think it now.

"But this weekend, I have a chance to show what I can do. I think my tight work, my scrummaging and mauling, is better than it ever was and that's the main thing I want to give to the team. But I can still get around a bit in open field, given the chance. At one point, my weight was affecting my agility. I'm back in proper condition now."