Thompson eager to out-scrummage Les Bleus' Mas marauder

England must dominate France's front row maestro – and the veteran red rose hooker knows he is key

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.

News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn