World Cup winner Steve Thompson doesn’t believe England will win the 2019 tournament and emulate the 16-year-old achievement of Clive Woodward’s all-conquering Class of 2003. The former hooker – now 41 and back living in England after time overseas split between Dubai and Cyprus – believes there a leadership void in the squad that will undermine their campaign in Japan
Speaking on The Rugby Pod with Andy Goode and Jim Hamilton, the 2005 British and Irish Lions player – who earned 73 England caps and featured at two World Cups – reckoned the current players ultimately won’t play for Eddie Jones as he isn’t English.
Thompson also spoke candidly on what he labelled Test rugby’s “disgusting” overseas player eligibility rules. He further agreed that former Test team-mate Dylan Hartley deserved to be left at home for the 2019 finals, and slammed as “horrendous” how the iconic Martin Johnson was left down by players and assistant coaches in 2011 and is no longer involved in coaching.
Addressing the current hype and expectation surrounding Jones’ squad in Japan, Thompson claimed that England will pay a heavy price for not selecting Richard Wigglesworth, adding that Jones’ Australian background won’t get the best from the players.
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“I do worry about it a little bit,” he said when asked if there is a leadership void in the 31-man squad at the finals in the Far East. “They should have taken Richard Wigglesworth, someone that can control Owen Farrell when the pressure comes on.
“Ben Youngs is a tremendous player when he is going forward and things are going well, but when you need to think about the game he is all over the place. You saw that especially against Scotland (in March), he fell apart. You need someone that can go on there and control the game, control Owen Farrell as well and take the pressure off the forwards.
“The game is going well at the moment. America (on Thursday)? I’m expecting England to put another 40 points on, but it’s just when the pressure comes on. If England want to win the World Cup they have got five knockout games. They have got Argentina, France, quarter-final, semi-final, final and I don’t think they have got the mentality in the squad at the moment to be able to back that up five weeks in a row.
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“I might be wrong and I hope I’m wrong, but that’s the way it looks and I don’t think they have got the strong enough leadership in the squad to be able to pull those games off,” he continued before turning his attention to the enigmatic Jones.
“I liked it (in 2003) because we had all English coaches. Head coach? I believe the biggest union in the world you should have an English coach. Underneath you can have specialist coaches that aren’t.
“He [Jones] plays a lot of games, plays mind games and he should be taking a lot of pressure off the players, but when the going gets tough Eddie gets going. That’s his nickname. I thought he was going to walk after the last Six Nations.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 14, 2019
“It will be interesting to see. He has brought (John) Mitchell on board to sort of take the pressure off a bit and then he chucked Will Carling in there to say, ‘Look, that is our token English man’. I just look at it and see it as a bit of pressure. If he doesn’t deliver he is gone and he knows that. In his mind, he has cashed in and he is happy.
“As an Englishman, he has put a good squad together. The squad are looking good but when it really, really comes down to the nitty-gritty in the changing room, can these English boys look at him and go, ‘We really want to back him because he is our team manager, he is our coach and we are doing this for England’? I don’t think they can do that.”
One of the reasons Wigglesworth wasn’t selected to play for England and is instead in Japan assisting the coaching of Canada was the late call-up of New Zealander Willi Heinz, who qualifies for England due to his grandmother hailing from Bishop’s Waltham near Southampton.
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Thompson has no time for these quirks in the Test eligibility rules, claiming the current three-year residency rule should be increased to 10 and not five as had been agreed for the end of 2020.
“I am English through and through. I love it and I just don’t think you should get these players who turn up on holiday for a while, play, earn some money at a club and suddenly get International caps. That is my honest opinion. People hate me for it. Some people like me for it, but that’s the way I believe it is.
“I think it is an outrage what has happened to Devin Toner. He has been an outstanding player for Ireland. Suddenly, some South African has turned up, a couple of years holiday and then suddenly he is included in the Irish squad a week into him qualifying for the squad. That is absolutely disgusting and wrong. It should be a 10-year rule at least.”
— Stephen Thompson MBE (@Tommo33s) September 24, 2019
A starter in 53 of his England appearances, Thompson has nothing but the highest of praise for Jamie George, the current first-choice hooker, adding that Jones was right to exclude former captain Hartley from his World Cup plans.
“Jamie George is probably one of the best rugby players in the world at the moment. You see the way he plays, his scrummaging, his lineout, everything. He would have struggled in my day but it was different, whereas now it is skill level. The way the sees the game and also just as a player he is just phenomenal.
“If he is on the bench or if he is starting he is just so happy for the squad and that is a big Saracens thing that they have pulled in. And his skill level, what he offers around the park, is phenomenal. England have gone up a step.
Missing out with England hasn't been easy for Dylan Hartley https://t.co/AMyWTfN4gk
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 12, 2019
“(Luke) Cowan-Dickie, for me, is superb. People talk about his lineout and that but the rest of his game is so good. Yeah, he loses the odd lineout but sometimes it is not just always down to him, it’s the jumpers and the lifters.
“Then you have got the third-choice (Jack) Singleton, who is superb. So Dylan, when you actually look at it down on paper, shouldn’t have made the squad and he hasn’t. Yeah, he is injured, it seems quite bad and it is ongoing, but the three hookers they have got there, I would be very happy with them throughout the whole tournament.”
As a player, Thompson couldn’t have experienced two more contrasting World Cups – champions in 2003 and chumps in 2011. In the process, it led to Johnson going from celebrated skipper under Clive Woodward to a head coach eight years later who was ridiculed for the quarter-final exit to France which cam following some unacceptable off-field high jink by some of the squad.
“When they carried on in 2011, a few so-called senior players were just horrendous, to be honest. But in 2003, we went out (on the town as well). The week before the Uruguay game, the midweek, we went out and had a big blow out to focus on knockout stages.
“Jonno did exactly the same in 2011 what we had done. The fixtures were practically the same. We got through the hard game in ’03 which was South Africa and Samoa and then in ’11 we got through Argentina which was the hard group game for us.
“He sort of planned it the same. The problem is he didn’t have the same mentality of senior players in 2011 which there was in 2003. The players let him down massively in 2011. I honestly genuinely thought we had a massive opportunity in 2011 to go to the final and then you don’t know what can happen, but the players let Jonno down in 2011,” said Thompson, who reckoned the experience has burned Johnson from ever returning to the game as a coach.
“It has (burnt him). He is very loyal. You [Andy Goode] played under Brian Smith and (Mike) Ford who I thought were probably two of the worst coaches I have ever played under. He stayed massive loyal at times which I don’t think he should have.
“The person himself, he is missing in the game. He should be there but on the other hand, financially why should he be? He has still got a youngish family and the stuff that he went through.
“It must have been hard for him to put his money on coaches and players who really let him down the way they did. It must have been hard for him because he is a massive character. He is all about leadership. He leads from the front and expects everyone to follow him and people didn’t.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 25, 2019
“I know for a fact that people gave all the right talk to him so he thought, ‘Oh, they are doing what I expect them to do’. But they didn’t do it so that much be harsh for someone like Jonno to be let down like that,” he said before adding a final remark about Ford who is now working at Leicester.
“Defensive coach? He was just horrendous. He was one of the worst coaches I have ever been involved in. No wonder he has been around so many clubs. It is hilarious.”
WATCH: The new RugbyPass World Cup documentary, Tonga: Road To Japan
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