Battle of the Rugby World Cup front row needs to be focused and legal

All Black Piri Weepu looks to the ref after the scrum collapses during the match between New Zealand and France. Photo / Dean Purcell
All Black Piri Weepu looks to the ref after the scrum collapses during the match between New Zealand and France. Photo / Dean Purcell

Steve Thompson is seething, which is no bad mood for a hooker to be in ahead of a World Cup quarter-final against the French.

"We've been one of the best, cleanest scrummaging sides in the game for a long time now, yet suddenly it's us giving away penalties at the set-piece," says the man who was at the very heart of front-row affairs when England won the Webb Ellis Trophy two tournaments ago. "Let's put it this way: it's a bit disappointing."

In other words, he feels there is some daylight robbery going on in this tournament, some of it perpetrated by officials who do not quite understand who is doing what to whom and why when the forwards engage in unholy hostility after an illicit pass, a butterfingered fumble or an inconclusive ruck. England found themselves on the wrong side of the South African referee Craig Joubert more than once at Eden Park last weekend, and while Matt Stevens, the red-rose loose head, would contrive to look innocent if he was caught with three gold bars in each pocket and both hands in a bank vault, he could not persuade the former corporate banker from Maritzburg that he was more a victim than a villain.

"We know we can't afford to let it happen again, so we've put in even more work on the set-piece this week. We need to beat the French in this area."

Thompson knows what it is to take on the French on a weekly basis, having spent a demanding season or two in the Top 14 Championship with Brive. His direct opponent today will be William Servat of Toulouse, regarded by many as the finest hooker in Europe, and when he packs down, it will be the formidable Perpignan tight-head prop Nicolas Mas whispering sweet everythings in his ear trying to make his life an utter misery by driving his bullet head into Thompson's neck - a neck that once gave the Midlander so much trouble, he had a plastic plate inserted as a means of reinforcement.

The last time France beat England, in Paris a little over 18 months ago, they won the scrum battle hands down - not least because Mas outmanoeuvred the English loose head Tim Payne and set about disrupting the red-rose front row with gusto. Unless Stevens keeps the ferocious Catalan square, honest and as quiet as humanly possible, Thompson will be in for almost as long a night as Dylan Hartley experienced that evening in Saint Denis.

One man who believes Thompson is up to the task of surviving and thriving in the darkened recesses today is Graham Rowntree, the England scrum technician. "He's a strong character, a big voice around the squad and he's been around the block," Rowntree said. "Steve is in the shape of his life."

"They're going to be massively passionate, massively physical," says Thompson.

There are a number of ways of dealing with this, including fighting fire with fire. Thompson is not averse to that idea, but as one of the greybeards of this red-rose party, he will be responsible for keeping the flames under control.

- INDEPENDENT

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