- England’s Steve Thompson speaks exclusively to RFU.com
- CA Brive hooker chats about life in an international front row
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England’s veteran hooker Steve Thompson battled back from a career-threatening neck injury sustained in January 2007 to gain a place in Martin Johnson’s squad for the 2009 summer tests against Argentina.
With the vast experience of 55 England caps and three British & Irish Lions appearances, the 6’ 2”, 19-stone hooker made four appearances in this year’s RBS 6 Nations.
In an RFU.com exclusive, CA Brive’s Thompson talks about the demands of being an international front row forward, his return from that neck injury, and looks ahead to England’s summer tour Down Under this June, for which he is hoping to be selected.
The front row is perhaps the most physically demanding position on the pitch – can you give us an insight into what it feels like the first time you pack down in an international game?
There’s always that fear in your belly and one of the good things about playing in the front row is the one-on-one physical confrontation but you are part of an eight-man unit and you know you’ve got to perform.
It’s a funny one because you’ve got to be on top of your game at all times as scrums can change so quickly during the game. One scrum you’re on top of them and have a great scrum but the next one you’re on the back foot. Having that edge and having that anticipation in your stomach at every single scrum helps you to perform.
Alongside the physical anticipation, presumably you need to keep a clear head, especially when hooking.
It’s the old body in the fire, head in the fridge scenario. You have to be able to think but most of the time it is genuinely important to hit as hard as you can and keep on pushing. There are technical aspects but if you don’t do that bit right you are definitely in trouble. If you get the simple bit right, the rest will follow.
What sort of routine do you go through at scrum time? Is there a pattern you stick to?
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I tend to go through the same routine every time, consistency helps to get things right. Normally if it’s our ball I bind with my tight head first, then the loose head comes on. You leave your hips slightly open with the props and then call for the second rows to come in. Then I literally do an ‘arms call’ and that is when everybody sinks down and everything gets tighter.
What happens sometimes is that you can bind to tightly with your props and suddenly your second rows can’t come in – then they’re pushing the front row around and you’re all over the place. It’s all about setting up and having a tight unit but first making sure everybody is set and then that’s when you pull in the arms and it gets a little bit uncomfortable. That’s when you’ve got to be on the edge and everybody is ready to go together.
There is a lot of responsibility on the hooker at the scrum and the line out as the main platforms of possession, do you relish having the team depend on you?
Yeah I do, but it just comes with the job. The kickers kick, the centres have those one-on-one tackles in open play, there are a lot of pressure positions in rugby but that’s why we play the game. There is the collective confrontation in the game but also the concentration on you to do your specific job for the team.
You retired from the game with a serious neck injury only to return with Brive some six months later. Did you have any doubts about being able to put your body on the line again in such a physical position?
Any doubts went away after the first contact session I had. I did a scrum at Brive in training and hit in as usual and the scrum collapsed. I felt my neck go a bit and thought ‘oh no’ but I got up and it was absolutely fine. Suddenly I started to trust it again and thought I’m going to be alright. Rugby is one of those games where if you’re worried about the tackles or you’re worried about the contact you get injured. Most of the time, if you go in wholeheartedly, you’ll be absolutely fine.
Did you expect to get back in to the England set-up after the injury? There was a long gap between your 47th and 48th caps, some 38 months.
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Yes, people have mentioned that and it was a long time. It was a massive goal of mine to play for England again. I didn’t want to come back and be any sort of player, I wanted to back in the England set-up and play international rugby again. I’m able to do that now and just want to be able to keep pushing myself forwards.
Looking back to the 2010 RBS 6 Nations campaign, how do you assess it from a personal point of view?
Honestly it was quite hard. I feel like I performed well when I came on but it’s only natural to want more game time. When I come on I’ve got to make an impact and do the basics well. Then the tackling and ball-carrying opportunities will come along. I’ve got to bring the experience that I’ve got to keep playing well looking ahead to the summer tour and World Cup.
On a number of occasions, Martin Johnson has emphasised the importance he places on being on the pitch in the final quarter when matches are often won and lost. With your experience, is that a role you can fill effectively for England?
Like you say, having a bit of experience is important in big games and during the 6 Nations it was important to close out results, such as against Wales and Italy. When you come on in those situations it is important to use any experience you have and I fell I’ve contributed well in the tight situations.