Steve Thompson has had to retire a second [and presumably final] time, due to a recurrence of the serious neck injury that halted his career in 2007.
With Simon Shaw having moved to Toulon and Lewis ‘Groovy’ Moody having retired in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, the long drawn-out death throes of the English World Cup-winning team of 2003 are winding down.
Mike Tindall’s punitive demotion from the England Elite squad has been rescinded as of a couple of days ago, and le Johnny would doubtless answer his country’s call from the other side of Timbuktu, but it is very likely that in order to make a clean break from the very messy recent past, the next England coach – caretaker or not – will exclude them from his Six Nations squad. Thus, while it may be a little premature to read out the eulogy, there’s a definite feeling that this is The End Of An Era.
And it is – albeit the end of an era that has been allowed to hang over English rugby for far too long. Those who remember the 2003 tournament will remember how England were past their best, and that their team was derided as a long-in-the-tooth “Dad’s Army” by the Australian press. That didn’t matter: they won the thing, even on the downward slope. However, it’s incredible that a team that was in age-driven decline even in winning it were still sending players to the World Cup a full eight years later.
That the rump of the 2003 squad were competitive enough to reach the 2007 final was an enormous shock, and both a huge credit to its leading figures [Wilkinson, Robinson, Catt, Dallaglio and Vickery] and a gutwrenching reality check to their knock-out victims, the super-charged Australian team with a front-row of pyrite and the hosting French who struggled to live up to home expectations.
However a further four years on, while Shawe had become something of a peripheral [although influential] figure, Thompson, Moody, Wilkinson and Tindall were still front row centre: Thompson at hooker, Moody as openside and captain, Wilkinson as outhalf and goalkicker and Tindall as vice-captain and captain in Moody’s regular absences, both in the 2011 Six Nations and the World Cup warm-up matches.
Thompson was the best performer of all of them at the World Cup, even if some of his antics were grating. Kissing the great Mario Ledesma as a wind-up was one of the most classless acts of the World Cup – at least from the Mole’s perspective – but that has long been Thomo’s style: the happy warrior. He was a guy who was built for the front row, both in physical and in mental terms: a big ugly bastard who loved a row and a lairy wind-up, and a guy who never took a backwards step. He was the sort of player who opposition fans hated, but who his team-mates deeply appreciated. A bully on the pitch, but not necessarily a bad guy off it.
Jerry Flannery calling him a “fat c*nt” in the 2006 Six Nations classic between Ireland and England essentially ensured the Limerickman’s folk-hero status amongst Irish rugby followers, but it was pretty obvious that Thompson took it in his stride – it certainly didn’t rile him up or make him so anything more stupid than usual.His return to international rugby in 2009 was most interesting due to the presence in the England side of Dylan Hartley, a hooker whom many in English rugby saw as a true successor to Thompson after under-sized stand-ins like Mark Regan and Little Lee Mears.
Hartley was a guy who snarled a lot, had a hot temper and got involved in a lot of jawing and some off-the-ball stuff, and had quickly assumed Thomo’s old role as the player opposition fans loved to hate. However, the competiton between Hartley and Thompson was only ever going to have one winner. Hartley was exposed more and more often as a guy who was all yap going forward, but went into his shell on the backfoot; Thomo, on the other hand, loved it all. He was the same player whether England were giving it out or on the receiving end.
The comparison was deeper than that: it highlighted the generational gap in quality between the current English side and Woodward’s great teams of the early years of the decade. Hartley was supposed to be a big figure in this new English team, but Thompson – coming off serious neck surgery and a retirement that had seen him balloon in weight to well over twenty-one stone – came in and took his place back without much of a by-your-leave.
Some would say that Johnson was too loyal to his former team-mates, and in certain cases, there’s an obvious ring of truth to that accusation. However, from where the Mole was sitting, it was clear that Thompson was just a better player than Hartley – bigger, tougher, a better-scrummager, a better ball-carrier and much more of a rallying point to his pack. His retirement comes not before time, but it does weaken the English team.