Thompson owes England recall to Brive stint

 Steve Thompson’s rugby career came to a halt three years ago when a neck injury forced him to retire from the game.

But on Saturday Thompson, who starred in the side that beat hosts Australia in the 2003 final in Sydney, will complete an unlikely comeback when he runs out to face Australia at Twickenham as England’s starting hooker.

Although he came off the England bench in June for a brief stint against Argentina, it will be Thompson’s first start since the 2006 Six Nations.

“That was my whole reason for coming back was to try to play for England again, get involved play at the highest level or there’s no point coming back,” Thompson told reporters at England’s training base on Wednesday.

“It’s one of them, you don’t realise how good something is until you lose it and suddenly I’ve got a chance to get it back and really take it all in.”

Having turned his back on a hefty insurance payment following his injury, Thompson was almost resigned to a non-playing career in rugby until circumstances dictated otherwise.

He had already agreed to join Brive as a player from English Premiership side Northampton and in spite of his injury Thompson was given a role of club ambassador cum coach.

A few months later in 2007, he had a hunch.

“I went over to France and I just thought I would go for a second opinion, just to have a look,” Thompson explained.

“If they had said ‘no’ I would have accepted the decision and that’s it. But they said the operation you had, it was the same as if you would have had the other one, fusion, when they take a bit out of your hip and put that in.

“Before the movement in my neck was 40 percent, now it’s up to 85-90. So overall, my neck is a lot better.”

After his weight rose to 138 kg (21.5 stone), Thompson repaid Brive’s faith by slimming down to 115 kg (18 stone).

But there was a time when playing rugby was the furthest thing from his mind.

“As soon as I was told I couldn’t play again it think it was a bit of a relief. I thought I’d never say that but that was just what it had come to.”

Two years later the 31-year-old is poised to win his 49th England cap.

“I’ve got to thank Brive so much,” he said.

“They took me in when I was at a bit of a crossroads. They were good to me, I’ve been through some hard times, they stuck with me and I got through to where I am now.”

Now Thompson’s focus is firmly on the future, with memories of 2003 put to one side for the day when he really does stop playing.

“For me it’s all about the future – I’m here now and I’ve got to cement my place and I really want to go to another World Cup.”

Thompson now finds himself in an England set-up where Martin Johnson, his World Cup-winning captain, is now the team manager.

“I was always under him – it’s no real difference,” said Thompson.

“He commanded great respect as a player and it’s the same now.

He can have a laugh but when he looks at you and frowns you know you are in trouble and that’s what he’s brought to the role.”

Thompson will be playing in the same England side as star fly-half Jonny Wilkinson for the first time since the 2003 World Cup final.

The injury-plagued Wilkinson has also had his career rejuvenated by French rugby, in his case with a pre-season move to Toulon.

“We sat down in the pub last week – I had a beer and he had a coke – and we were just talking about the whole experience,” Thompson recalled.

“He’s much more relaxed and happy and he’s a bit like I was perhaps, he had all those injuries at Newcastle and a lot of pressure.

“Now he’s more happy-go-lucky. He’s still got that focus but he looks as if he’s got more of a balance, and that goes for me too really.”

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