Thompson gets kicks on the long road back

If Steve Thompson's ears are burning at the praise he has just received from two heroes of the game, ancient and modern, it is a feeling Leeds's England hooker is accustomed to. Thompson spent a fortnight in the summer riding a motorbike across America on the fabled Route 66, fulfilling a long-held dream on a trip of fierce desert heat, run-ins with the law and outstanding spare ribs.

First, the kind words. Martin Johnson, the England manager whose encouragement two years ago helped inspire Thompson's well-documented comeback after he had retired with a neck injury, said last week that the national side was developing the leaders it needed. "Any team I've been in that has been successful has had that, guys who set the standards and to whom other players are accountable," he said, reflecting on the shared Test series in Australia in June when Thompson started both matches. "Steve Thompson has taken a lead in this."

And in the newly published autobiography of Bobby Windsor, The Iron Duke, Wales's hard-man prop of the 1970s scorns the likes of John Hayes, Andrew Sheridan and even Jason Leonard but doffs his cap to England hookers. "Steve Thompson is one who has always impressed me, a big man who gets the job done and has the mobility to get round the field," Windsor wrote.

"For Johnno to say that is a good compliment," said Thompson as he prepared for his first start for Leeds against Saracens today having spent two seasons at Brive. "For me, I think I've got something to offer. I've been in all the different scenarios: a winning team, a losing team, up there playing for trophies and down where the pressure's on. Everyone really enjoyed the June tour and it was no coincidence there were quite a few leaders. Mike Tindall had come back, Lewis Moody, Simon Shaw, Jonny Wilkinson. They have tried to bleed younger players in and they have done it, but they have some of the old guard for their influence on other players."

Fitness tests during England's August pre-season camp at Twickenham cheered Thompson by showing he had the most flexible neck in the front row, compared with the worst rating in the squad before his last operation. England value his scrummaging and tackle count; squad-mates say he brings an unflinching, unapologetic commitment to training.

"Some people would comment that when I was younger I was more hot-headed," said Thompson, now 32 and having added 10 caps last season to reach 57. "It's weird. In many ways playing for England this time has been a lot harder than making my first appearance, when it just happened quite easily. I've had to earn everyone's respect rather than them saying 'Oh, he's a has-been, he's finished'. I didn't enjoy rugby as much the first time round. This time I'm loving it every day. I've got that no-fear factor. It's a bit like a midlife crisis, I'm there, I'm young again and bouncing around."

A youth team coach at Thompson's first club, Northampton, had ridden Route 66; it would often crop up as a great idea "when you were out for a few beers with the lads". With his girlfriend Esther, he did what most only talk about and, immediately after the Australia tour, jumped on a Triumph Rocket 3 and headed west from Chicago. The requisite beard and handlebar moustache adorned his chops.

"After the first few days I was looking at the bikers with their cut-off leather waist jackets. So I got one of them for $9.99 and it was boiling but it looked great. It was a dream trip, everything I imagined and more. We went through Albuquerque, Texas, up to the Grand Canyon. It reached 46C, driving across Arizona and New Mexico, up to 300 miles a day in the full sun. The people were so friendly, and all the more so when I said I was English and doing Route 66."

Were there any hairy moments? "In some states you can ride without a helmet, and I just had my bandana. But we got the states wrong and were pulled over. Luckily the policeman was a biker and he directed us to the local Harley garage to buy a helmet.

"We ate huge beef and pork ribs in a barn in Texas, a shrine to cowboy world. We ate in little diners where possible. I asked for fruit in one of them to go with my pancakes, and the waitress looked at me and said, 'There's nothing that healthy here'."

From the dream to Premiership reality, and Leeds's league position would be healthier if they had held on to a hard-earned lead at Gloucester last weekend. As for England, he said: "The past is the past and I've got to do enough to keep the jersey. It wouldn't fall apart if we lose the first autumn match to New Zealand but it would be a big kick in the nuts. We know that we've got to build on towards to the World Cup and we've got a year to do that."