England v France, Rugby World Cup, October 8, 2011
Thompson primed for front-row tussle
October 7, 2011
England's Steve Thompson starts alongside Dan Cole and Matt Stevens on Saturday © Getty Images
England's veteran hooker Steve Thompson is adamant he is ready for a brutal front-row battle with the French pack in Saturday's Rugby World Cup quarter-final showdown.
Thompson will scrum down with his head between William Servat, who widely regarded as the best hooker in Europe, and the ferocious tight-head Nicolas Mas. England have named five forwards on their bench for the first time in the World Cup.
For all the game-changing abilities of an Aurelien Rougerie or a Manu Tuilagi - England's bench selection is a clear indication of where manager Martin Johnson thinks the game will be won. There are few sterner challenges in the global game for a hooker - and Thompson is relishing the prospect of locking horns with Les Bleus.
"You know what's coming when you play the French - they are always physical and don't take a backward step," Thompson said. "We know we've got to be on top of our game to compete with them.
"It's going to be physical - in the scrums, lineout and mauls, in the rucks, they're going to be chucking themselves around and that's what we've got to do. That's probably why we've gone with the bench that we have. I don't think anyone is surprised by it."
England, as they have done through the ages, pride themselves on their scrum and a desire to keep it off the ground and going forward. Matt Stevens has struggled at loosehead on his last two starts and faces an immense challenge to keep Mas square, to stop him driving in on Thompson and upsetting the balance.
England manager Martin Johnson expects a purer scrummaging contest against France than they experienced against Scotland. "We have a very good scrum and a very clean scrum. We have had few penalties in that area of the game," Johnson said. "We want to scrummage, the French want to scrummage and it is a key battle for us.
"Last week, Scotland were happy to chance their arm with the referee. They put the scrum on the floor and took their chances, frankly. I am not blaming the referee, it is about as hard a thing to referee as there is. There were times we weren't accurate enough either. "We need to do things better so there is no doubt."
Thompson, who missed the 2007 World Cup after retiring temporarily with a neck injury, will have an important role in England stamping their authority on the set piece. The 33-year-old has regained the hooker's jersey from Dylan Hartley and scrum coach Graham Rowntree said: "He's a strong character, a big voice around the squad and he's been around the block.
"Steve is in the shape of his life. He's going to be important to us in this game, because we have to draw on all our experience to make the referee's job easier, to ensure he has easy decisions to make.
"That means getting our engagement right, our shape right, and giving him a clear picture of the dominance we're establishing. That's been our problem in a couple of matches, especially last week when we conceded four scrum penalties in the first half.
"Four in one half, when we gave away only seven in the whole Six Nations? Unacceptable. We can't have that."
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