Steve Thompson is seething, which is no bad mood for a hooker to be in ahead of a World Cup quarter-final against the French, who love a proper scrum contest every bit as much as the Argentines or the Georgians and a whole lot more than everyone else on the planet, including their dear friends from the far side of the Channel. "We've been one of the best, cleanest scrummaging sides in the game for a long time now, yet suddenly it's us giving away penalties at the set-piece," says the man who was at the very heart of front-row affairs when England won the Webb Ellis Trophy two tournaments ago. "Let's put it this way: it's a bit disappointing."
In other words, he feels there is some daylight robbery going on in this tournament, some of it perpetrated by officials who do not quite understand who is doing what to whom and why when the forwards engage in unholy hostility after an illicit pass, a butterfingered fumble or an inconclusive ruck. England found themselves on the wrong side of the South African referee Craig Joubert more than once during the game at Eden Park last weekend, and while Matt Stevens, the red-rose loose head, would contrive to look innocent if he was caught with three gold bars in each pocket and both hands in a bank vault, he could not persuade the former corporate banker from Maritzburg that he was more a victim than a villain.
"I don't think the Scots would claim they've been one of the best scrummaging sides in the world just recently, but the decisions were going their way," Thompson continues with an exasperated shake of the head. "We know we can't afford to let it happen again, so we've put in even more work on the set-piece this week. We need to beat the French in this area."
Thompson knows what it is to take on the French on a weekly basis, having spent a demanding season or two in the Top 14 Championship with Brive. Tomorrow, his direct opponent will be William Servat of Toulouse, regarded by many as the finest hooker in Europe, and when he packs down, it will be the formidable Perpignan tight-head prop Nicolas Mas whispering sweet everythings in his ear trying to make his life an utter misery by driving his bullet head into Thompson's neck – a neck that once gave the Midlander so much trouble, he had a plastic plate inserted as a means of reinforcement.
"Mas coming back into the side changes everything," he confesses. "Servat's a main man as well, but in terms of pure scrummaging, Mas is the operator." Indeed. The last time France beat England, in Paris a little over 18 months ago, they won the scrum battle hands down – not least because Mas outmanoeuvred the English loose head Tim Payne and set about disrupting the red-rose front row with gusto. Unless Stevens keeps the ferocious Catalan square, honest and as quiet as humanly possible, Thompson will be in for almost as long a night as Dylan Hartley experienced that evening in Saint Denis.
One man who believes Thompson is up to the task of surviving and thriving in the darkened recesses tomorrow is Graham Rowntree, the England scrum technician who played a good deal of representative rugby alongside the hooker during the back end of his own career as a prop of the loose-head variety. "He's a strong character, a big voice around the squad and he's been around the block," Rowntree remarked. "It's been a close call between him and Dylan for the starting place: I guess we gave him a little more game time during the warm-up matches and he showed a bit more as a result, but we'd be happy to go with either hooker. The thing about Steve is that he's in the shape of his life.
"He's going to be important to us in this game, because we have to draw on all our experience to make the referee's job easier, to ensure he has easy decisions to make. That means getting our engagement right, our shape right, and giving him a clear picture of the dominance we're establishing. That's been our problem in a couple of matches, especially last week when we conceded four scrum penalties in the first half. Four in one half, when we gave away only seven in the whole Six Nations? Unacceptable. We can't have that."
Encouragingly for England, their hooker is every bit as aware of the need as the coach. Thompson has never been one of life's natural pacifists and he relishes the prospect of the French going after him this weekend. "You know what's coming when you play them," he says. "They're going to be massively passionate, massively physical." There are a number of ways of dealing with this, including fighting fire with fire. Thompson is not averse to that idea, but as one of the greybeards of this red-rose party, he will be responsible for keeping the flames under control.Reuse content