Thompson exchanges living hell for place in England's underworld

England's hooker has only recently recovered from a loss of form - though his club have not. He talks to Chris Hewett about the challenge which Australia will pose at Twickenham today

Like most denizens of the front-row underworld, Steve Thompson is, by nature, a cheerful sort, blessed with a highly developed sense of the absurd - a vital aid to sanity for those who spend their sporting lives in an environment consisting entirely of bad backs, unshaven cheeks, sulphurous breath, four-letter words and violent excess. Yet Thompson has had the touch of doom about him over the last fortnight, during which he has seen his fiercest rival retire from international rugby in an almighty strop, his club coach get the push and his captain tender his resignation. "I'm glad I'm wearing these flip-flops," he said this week. "If I was wearing trainers, I'd probably hang myself with the laces."

Like most denizens of the front-row underworld, Steve Thompson is, by nature, a cheerful sort, blessed with a highly developed sense of the absurd - a vital aid to sanity for those who spend their sporting lives in an environment consisting entirely of bad backs, unshaven cheeks, sulphurous breath, four-letter words and violent excess. Yet Thompson has had the touch of doom about him over the last fortnight, during which he has seen his fiercest rival retire from international rugby in an almighty strop, his club coach get the push and his captain tender his resignation. "I'm glad I'm wearing these flip-flops," he said this week. "If I was wearing trainers, I'd probably hang myself with the laces."

Thompson plays for Northampton, which is no joke these days. There is nothing funny about being a laughing stock, and the good folk of Franklin's Gardens have been the butt of everyone else's wisecracks since they embarked on their losing streak in the Premiership shortly after the Battle of Hastings - or rather, eight matches ago, which amounts to the same thing in the nakedly commercial world of professional union, where a single defeat costs money and lots of defeats cost lots of jobs. If truth be told, the England hooker was relieved to trade the living hell of the East Midlands for the leafy luxury of the red rose hotel in stockbrokerish Surrey.

"It's been an interesting few weeks, hasn't it?" he said, making a late-autumn bid for the Understatement of the Year award. "At least I can get away from it all down here with England. I keep in touch, of course; I'm vice-captain at Northampton, so the phone has barely stopped ringing. But I knew I was under pressure for my international place after playing pretty poorly towards the end of last season and I needed to be able to focus on my own form, more or less to the exclusion of everything else. The fact that I can do that here is of benefit to the club, as well as myself. If I'm somewhere near my best at the end of these Test matches, as I hope to be, I can go back home full of enthusiasm and confidence."

Victory over the Wallabies at Twickenham this afternoon will certainly leave Thompson feeling good about himself, if not about his club's immediate prospects of avoiding a thoroughly canine relegation scrap with the likes of Worcester and Harlequins during the next six months. At 26, he is still some way short of his prime, yet he already knows what it is to be widely acknowledged as the best hooker in the game. The fact that his form crumbled to dust in the aftermath of Sydney 2003 - he celebrated the World Cup victory in some style by proposing marriage in the middle of the surfing beach in Manly, but then performed with all the passion of a hen-pecked husband - was entirely predictable. He had been playing out of his socks since early 2002, he was exhausted, and was due a bad trot.

Even so, the fall came as a shock. Thompson was not the first player in history to underestimate the depth of his own fatigue, or fail to appreciate the fragility of his own body - a body constructed on an unusually generous scale, but not quite indestructible - yet he was less equipped than most to handle the negatives. Having experienced nothing but good times and glory days since breaking into the England élite some 22 months previously, the loss of the sporting life force left him bewildered, to the extent that he surrendered his Test place to Mark Regan during last summer's thankless, winless tour of the Antipodes.

An injury in the early minutes of the Premiership game with Sale in mid-October raised the uncomfortable possibility of more suffering at the hands of his supremely persistent adversary, but the new England coach, Andy Robinson, saw something in Thompson he wanted, and when he reinstated him for the opening autumn international against Canada, Regan went off the deep end and cut the cord with the England team, giving Robinson both barrels in the process. If Thompson had played poorly against Canada, he and the coach would have been laughed out of town.

But Thompson did not play poorly, and his performance in more challenging circumstances against the Springboks seven days later was even better. "The scrummaging performance against the Boks was incredibly satisfying," he said, recalling with relish the sight of Os du Randt, that Table Mountain of a loose-head prop, being propelled backwards at a rate of knots by an England front row so dominant that the props, Graham Rowntree and Julian White, were credited with the best performances of their international careers.

"When I was a kid playing in the back row," he recalled, "I used to look at the front-rowers celebrating their own strange victories in their own little world and wondering: 'What the bloody hell are these people about? What fun do they get out of what they do?' I understand now, of course, because I'm one of them, and sitting there with Graham and Julian last Saturday night was awesome. We had a great time, just talking it through. We knew the Boks would be massively physical, that we'd have to stand up to them. And we did. Everything went right for us. It doesn't often happen like that, believe me."

There is every chance of it not happening this afternoon against Australia. Thompson was in the middle of the England front row on World Cup final night when the Wallabies fudged and fiddled and faffed around at the set-piece, luring the South African referee, Andre Watson, up so many culs-de-sac and down so many blind alleys that, in the colourfully descriptive words of one red-rose forward, "he didn't know his arse from his elbow". Former Wallabies, including the 1999 World Cup-winning hooker Michael Foley, openly admit that any scrum prepared by Eddie Jones, the Australian coach, is not a scrum in the accepted sense of the word, but rugby's equivalent of a practical joke. Jones has cornered the market in set-piece kidology, so the problems faced by Thompson and company today will be the opposite of those they solved so impressively last weekend.

"It's more of a thoughtful one, that's for sure," he agreed. "I don't want to say anything that might give the Wallabies ammunition, but they're extremely streetwise in the scrum and they use the rules well, often stretching them to the limit. They don't do silly, stupid things if they find themselves under pressure; they play their mind games and pick their moments. They're no mugs, these people. Did you see them against the French a couple of weeks ago? The French scrum is world-class, yet on a couple of occasions the Aussies piled the pressure on them on their own put-in. That's what I mean about them picking their moments.

"Some people have this idea that while the Australian backs are brilliant, their forwards are anything but. It's complete rubbish," Thompson insists. "There were times during the World Cup final when they beat us in the brain department. Jason Leonard was on the bench that night, and he could see what was happening because he wasn't swallowed up by all the intensity out there on the pitch. When he came on, he settled things down and helped us deal with what was going on. But it just goes to show how much it takes to beat the Wallabies. They're a smart lot."

Assuming Thompson plays smart this afternoon, he will run straight through the Six Nations Championship after Christmas and, as likely as not, make a Test Lion of himself in New Zealand in June. He is not counting any poultry in respect of all this - "There are things to work on; let's face it, I have a bad reputation as a line-out thrower," he admitted - but there are few coaches in world rugby who would resist the temptation to pick him, especially now he has added a dark-hued "enforcer's" dimension to his game.

There is a new maturity about him, too. Asked whether he considered himself a senior international in the light of all the retirements - Johnson, Dallaglio, Leonard, Back - and the injuries to Jonny Wilkinson and Richard Hill, he was more than willing to embrace the notion.

"You can't keep saying 'I'm only young', as though it were some kind of get-out," he agreed. "At some point, you have to step up and meet your responsibilities."

England are confident he will do precisely that in the coming weeks and months. As for Northampton ... well, they are on their knees, praying that their single most potent player delivers something similar for them.

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