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Huw Richards
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Huw Richards is qualified to play for either Wales or England and was only prevented from doing so by being slow, short-sighted, averse to pain and lacking in any compensating talent. Denied sporting success he became a journalist and, after contributing to the demise of several short-lived rugby magazines, was the FT's rugby writer between 1995 and 2009 and currently writes for the International Herald Tribune and the Sunday Herald.
Sad end for Thompson - a true original
Huw Richards
April 17, 2007

"Should anyone continue to doubt that life remains exceptionally tough in the front row, one need only refer them to the announcement that Steve Thompson has been forced to retire at the age of 28." Huw Richards reports

It means that of the three men who formed England's starting front row in the 2003 World Cup Final, two - neither yet 30 - have not made it through to the next tournament.

Thompson followed the even unluckier Trevor Woodman.

Nor has the third of the triumvirate - Phil Vickery - exactly enjoyed a trouble-free time since picking up his medal in Sydney.

After his succession of injuries, Vickery will have seen his former team-mate depart with a strong sense of 'there but for the Grace of God...'

Thompson's misfortune, in terms of his long-term reputation, is that by far the likeliest words uttered during a distinguished career to reach dictionaries of memorable sporting quotes were his comment that he had periods when he 'could not hit a cow's arse with a banjo' when throwing-in at the line-out.

That colourful image will inevitably foreground the periods when this was a problem, notably the match against Ireland at Twickenham in 2004 when he found Paul O'Connell with even greater regularity than a series of Munster and Ireland hookers have managed.

But if that match showed his limits as a player, his reaction displayed his qualities as a human being.

It would have been a natural reaction to duck interviews and try to minimise his responsibility for an England display that fell short - as Clive Woodward, another man often seen at his best after England losses, readily admitted - in most aspects.

Thompson instead sought out responsibility, taking - it seemed through these eyes - a rather greater share of the blame than he truly merited. To see him seeking out a group of inquisitors at the England press session before the following game against Wales was to recognise a man who did not go missing when the going got tough.

And his radar was not always as faulty - if it were, he would hardly have won an England place to start with.

Faced with the most important throw of his life, on a foully wet night and with the exhaustion of nearly 100 minutes of high-intensity, higher-tension rugby upon him, he nailed the throw that began the planned move to set up Jonny Wilkinson's winning drop-goal in Sydney.

He deserves, though, to be remembered as much more than an iffy-thrower with a turn of phrase and a sense of accountability. He was an original.

His early career move from flanker to hooker has been made by other players - French captain Jeff Tordo comes to mind. Few, though, have accompanied the transition with a change of name as Steve Walter - the origin of the 'Wally' nickname - became Steve Thompson.

And if not quite a revolutionary on the scale of John Eales and Michael Jones, both of whom did things nobody in their position had ever been expected to do, he certainly extended the possibilities of the number two shirt.

There had been outsize hookers before, like Australia's Tom Lawton. There had been dangerous runners and adept handlers. None of the ballplayers had ever been as big as the 6ft 1in, 260lb Thompson, nor the big men as quick and dextrous.

Between 2001 and 2003 he was comfortably the best hooker in Britain and Ireland and had a strong
claim to be the best in the world as his contribution in the loose added a further dimension to the formidably good English pack of the time, helping them to play rugby of an imaginative fluidity rarely seen from England teams.

If he struggled to recapture that form after 2003, he was one of the players honest enough to admit that becoming a World Champion, a life-changing experience for the most grounded of characters, might have been a distraction.

Injuries and that dodgy radar meant he wasn't quite the nailed-on choice he'd been in previous years.

But when in form and fit he remained England's outstanding hooker. While there is nothing wrong with George Chuter and Lee Mears, neither do they offer the all-round range of skills and impact upon the game of Thompson at his best.

If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is that his injuries this season have offered a chance to his deputy at Northampton, Dylan Hartley.

Anyone who watched Saints televised match at Wasps last Sunday will confirm what aficionados have been saying for a little while, that Hartley is the real thing and his elevation to an England place is a matter of time.

Hartley will have to go some, though, for both club and country before he is considered the equal of his predecessor Steve Thompson.

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