Former England hooker Steve Thompson has shared his thoughts on Steve Borthwick’s side, following England’s third-place finish at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Certainly in the conversation for England’s all-time great front-rowers, Thompson was an integral part of Sir Clive Woodward’s team that lifted the Web Ellis trophy 20 years ago.
Thompson’s most famous contribution in an England shirt came on that fabled Sydney night, as he threw in the all-important line-out which began the immortalised phases of play that followed. The very same extra-time drive ended with Jonny Wilkinson slotting that iconic drop goal, that won England their one and only Rugby World Cup in 2003. Just as Australia lost by the finest of margins two decades ago, England’s journey for Rugby World Cup glory came to a similar halt in last month’s semi-final defeat to the Springboks.England loose-head prop Ellis Genge buckled under the South African scrum, which handed the Springboks a 77th minute penalty to strike at the posts. Handre Pollard dealt England the killing blow, with his match winning kick stealing the win, after the Springboks trailed for the majority. Thompson believed that England battled well throughout their World Cup campaign, yet there is a lot more work to be done after leaving France with Bronze medals, and beginning this new era.
"I think it's fair play, you know, they got third place. Everyone goes on about the draw that they had and all this lot, but they can only play what they had in front of them. And, you know, they were a couple minutes off being in the final.
"If you look at it for a World Cup, it's brilliant what they've done, so close, but so far as such. But as rugby goes, you'd say that they didn't really improve that much, and they hadn't played against some really good teams as such. Going into the Six Nations, obviously, it's going to be a lot of changes now, and hopefully, we'll start seeing some more rugby played.
"You look at kicking stats, and all that lot, we're certainly winning them! You see (Ben) Earl's coming through, if we do actually start playing some running rugby, he could be right up there. You look at some of the (other) players,(Owen) Farrell, people keep saying about him, 'is he finished, is he not finished?' I still think that there is some life in him, definitely."
Thompson was speaking in Bath, at an event promoting 'Concussed: Sports Uncomfortable Truth'. Written by Sam Peters, the book has been shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, and sheds a long-awaited light on how Traumatic Brain Injuries came to the forefront of rugby's conversation.
The former Northampton Saints hooker then shared his thoughts on the predicament of Borthwick's front row. Thompson gave his judgement on the current crop, beginning with an evaluation of Bristol Bears duo Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler. Thompson is a self-confessed harsh critic for England's front rowers, yet stands in a position of authority with 73 England caps, and three tests appearances for the British & Irish Lions.
"Thing is, I think I'm quite controversial in the front row and that, because I still think Sinckler and Genge are massively overrated. If you're looking at players, and you're building a squad to win a World Cup, you've got to do what South Africa have done. As much as they say, that's (Genge's penalty) what cost us the World Cup final place.
"You know, they can blame it on one decision and all that lot, which I think the referee got right. But when you've got props that are getting their head's stuffed up their backsides, the referee is always going to look at that. They (South Africa) did a complete job on our replacement front row. When you're worried about keeping Jamie George on there, and you've got the fresh hooker, you think to yourself, 'there's something wrong there'. They've got to bring (Theo) Dan on and they didn't."
An area of obvious discussion for the former international hooker, Thompson would have liked to see Theo Dan get more game time during England's Rugby World Cup campaign. The Saracen made four appearances in France, however he only accrued a total of 123 minutes in total. He made two cameos for less than 10 minutes against Argentina (pool stage) and Japan, before scoring twice in his start against Chile.
Dan was then an unused replacement in England's quarter-final and semi-final matches, before adding a third tournament try in the Bronze Medal victory against Argentina. Thompson believes that the 22-year-old was lucky to stay on the pitch against Los Pumas, after he dealt a blow to the back of Juan Cruz Mallia's head after scoring his try.
"You know, against Argentina, he's done quite well, bit of an idiot when he scored his try, you know the punch and that, he should have been sent off just for what he was doing. I mean, it's just so stupid. But, hopefully he's learned from that. Hopefully, he'll be a big sort of name going forward in the Six Nations."
"If he's there, you've got to give him the opportunities. You know, I think that's one of the reasons that cost us as well in the semi final. If he's not good enough, he shouldn't have been picked. If we haven't got the hookers in England that are good enough, obviously, there's a real problem, we've got to really start looking at that. I do feel that our front row's not good enough to be at the top level, at the moment, and we've got to really do that.
"We've gone from a dominant front row for years and years, that's been our sort of history as such, to probably one of the weaker front rows when you look at the top teams. Scotland, they've got a good scrummaging front row, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, obviously everyone knows about them. It annoys me that one country (South Africa) has gone really well (and) gone for it, and then all of a sudden they start talking about banning scrums and stuff like that, all because they've got props that actually want to do their job.
"Now, how many fly-halves do you know that get brought in, that can't pass, can't kick, but they hit a good ruck and they tackle really well? None. So, why should props be any different when it comes to Scrummaging? Scrummaging is their job. And then you put all the add ons on top of that. So you know, we've just got to really look now and grow the front row. Let's see it as a weakness at the moment. But how do we turn it into a strength?"
As Thompson discussed, the Springbok's 'Bomb Squad' and 7-1 split tactics were again at the forefront of their Rugby World Cup glory. South Africa have now gone 'Bokke-to-Bokke' in Rugby World Cup triumphs, following their 12-11 victory over New Zealand in the final. A key tactic of England's losing semi-final effort was Borthwick's decision to incorporate his own 'Bomb Squad', with Ellis Genge on the bench to replace Joe Marler. However, the alteration did not have the desired impact, and Thompson certainly wants to see more from Genge's performance going forward.
"Well, I think it (England) did start with it, it showed that they started with our strongest front row (against South Africa). When it comes to Genge in the big, big matches, he tends to go missing. When he has to try to scrummage, then you don't see him running around as much. He had a few runs against Argentina in the third-fourth place, other than that, you don't really see him in the big, big matches, you don't see him having that big impact.
"The problem is there, if he's not a great scrummager, and then he's not doing the bits around the park as well, you've got to start thinking, 'what are we going to do?' So, we're going to have to start looking at where do we find these props? Obviously, Dan Cole is not going to be around, (Joe) Marler's not going to be around. So we need to start looking at some scrummaging props that are going to keep us in there, else it's just going to become a weakness, and something that teams will target."
As Thompson mentioned, the likes of Cole and Marler are heading towards the end of their international careers, with Borthwick soon set to usher in a new era of England front-rowers. Mako Vunipola failed to recover from a back injury for the Rugby World Cup, with the 32-year-old completing a trio of props that are heading towards their twilight of their times in England jerseys. Will Stuart has steadily been establishing himself as a confident tight-head option, with Thompson briefly mentioning the Bath man before further discussing England's pitfalls at scrum-time.
"He's one of them, he (Will Stuart) does a job, and stuff like that. But, you know, for me, we should be breeding big, big props, big lads, that want to scrummage. Whereas, you see a lot of our props, they just see it (the scrum) as 'let's just get it done quickly and get out'.
"It's a bit like the Southern Hemisphere was years ago, when they done it, they just see it as a quick restart. That's how we seem to do it now. We've sort of flipped completely, and now other teams have got a hold of it and gone, 'do you know what, we can actually use a scrum as a weapon', and that's what they're doing."
Despite not departing from England's front row, Steve Borthwick will indeed be without some key personnel for the 2024 Six Nations and beyond. The likes of lock David Ribbans (Toulon), flanker Jack Willis (Toulouse) and centre Joe Marchant (Stade Francais), have all put their England careers on hold for opportunities in the French Top 14. Flying wing Henry Arundell is an anomaly in his move to Racing 92, as he was left unemployed following the financial collapse of London Irish at the end of the 2022/23 season, and remains in England contention for the foreseeable future.
Thompson believes that English players should be allowed to wear the red rose, and gain England caps despite being based overseas. The 45-year-old thinks that the RFU are missing a trick, in allowing another nation to pay the wages, whilst improving England's players for the international stage.
'I definitely do. I think they should let these lads get paid by someone else, another employee. They're playing a different type of rugby, which is opening their eyes, opening their horizons you know. It hasn't gone badly for the South Africans that are in the Top 14, or had been in the Premiership. They've played rugby in South Africa obviously when they started, and all of a sudden they've traveled the world, to try different rugby and understand different ways of coaching.
"I think it just makes them a more complete player, whilst the English clubs and the RFU aren't having to pay them. You know, so why would you not do that? I think you need an international calendar now where it all lines up, because I don't think it's right on player welfare, that some England players are being rested in between Six Nations games, and others are having to go back to their French clubs and playing that week of rest.
"But that's down to World Rugby to sort that out, and say 'right that is blocked off completely.' I know the club's look out (for their players), but we need a worldwide calendar where players are put in. As it comes to players playing abroad, I think they should be allowed to do it. Earn the money, and also, they're being coached by different styles of coaching, so you know, if anything, it just enriches their game of rugby, and opens their eyes to it.
"We've shut the doors here. It's a shame, New Zealand have opened up their's, their players now play in Japan, they play abroad and then come back, play for their country. And, that's what I think we need to start doing ourselves."
A guest speaker at the book launch of 'Concussed', Thompson has previously spoken very publicly about his battles with early on-set Dementia in a life after rugby. Head injuries were a prominent feature of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, with England's Tom Curry sent off after less than two minutes against Argentina, after a head clash with Juan Cruz Mallia in the opening weekend. All Blacks captain Sam Cane's shoulder charge on Jesse Kriel ended the tournament, by making him the first red-carded player in the history of the Rugby World Cup Final.
There was also contention for Springboks captain Siya Kolisi to be shown a red card, however the flanker's trip to the bunker resulted in just a yellow for his mitigated high hit on Ardie Savea. Kolisi was fortunate enough to return after his sin-bin, and lead South Africa to lift the Rugby World Cup at full time. Speaking on the high tackles throughout the tournament in France, Thompson said;
"Obviously, there's some controversial ones. (Tom) Curry, you know I definitely think it's one of them, it's a red card, he got it wrong. You've got to be looking at tackling lower. You look at the South Africans, I know we had the final thing (with Siya Kolisi), but if you actually look at (Pieter-Steph) du Toit, he's an absolutely machine. 6" 7, 6"8, (like) Courtney Lawes, one of the tallest rugby players in the world really, but never gets done for a high tackle, and one of the most dominant people at tackling.
"So it just goes to show the big lads can do it, if they do it properly, and they want to, and do they themselves right. So it's all about getting yourself ready for it, you know, they're professionals at the end of the day, and it's their job to do it (tackle correctly). So you know, you look at look at the Cane one, the two (Rugby World Cup Final) ones, I think they'll both be looking at red cards there, really.
"I know they're saying that they're mitigating things (with Kolisi), but if you are tackling that high and a player does come down slightly, it's still a high tackle. You're clashing with their heads, you've got to go lower. A lot of people aim for the ball, or beneath the ball, you don't sort of aim for the chest area. And that's where players are still getting it wrong."
Featured Image Credit: Progressive Rugby and 'Concussed: Sports Uncomfortable Truth'