Six Nations 2011: Thompson's experience crucial in huge year for England

A WELL-OILED machine that clicked into gear at the right time or a spluttering, fragmented squad that ground their way to success – two formulas that in the past have served England well.

The first is the path trodden by Sir Clive Woodward's vintage in 2003; a tight, close-knit unit, that played for each other and crushed everyone before them on the road to the country's golden moment in Sydney.

The latter is the route taken four years later by Brian Ashton's band of die-hards, who despite setback after humbling setback, defied their limitations by battling their way to a second successive final.

Woodward's way is seen as the blueprint. England won 14 of 15 games in 2003, claiming the Six Nations grand slam in the spring and the World Cup in the autumn.

Ashton's team won only nine of 17 matches in 2007, finishing third in the Six Nations and suffering a humiliating shutout defeat to the Springboks in the group stages of the World Cup before digging deep to reach the final.

For one man who played in that all-conquering team of 2003 before missing out four years later as his career reached a cross-roads, the two routes illustrate that too much can be made of the build-up to a World Cup.

Not that Steve Thompson believes lethargy is the key as England begin this all-important calendar year in Cardiff tonight.

"Look at the 2007 team, they got to the final having been beaten by 30-odd points in one game," said the Leeds Carnegie and England hooker, in reference to the Red Rose's crushing 36-0 defeat to the Springboks at the Stade de France.

"But for a controversial try they could have won that World Cup. They beat Australia, smashed France and got to a final.

"People say the camp was in disarray but still got to a final and could have won it, so there's not just one way of doing it."

What is heartening, though, for England fans hoping for a strong Six Nations showing and a positive build-up to the World Cup in New Zealand, is that Thompson feels Martin Johnson's current team bear closer resemblance to the well-oiled 2003 squad than the nuts and bolts 2007 version.

While not boasting that a squad that is rapidly improving is anything close to the belief in Woodward's settled team as they approached the start of their World Cup year, he does feel a good European campaign will stand them in good stead this year.

Reflecting on 2003, Thompson said: "We had the Autumn Internationals (won all three) before which were massive and we continued that into the Six Nations which went down to a grand slam decider in Ireland.

"If anything, that helped us in our preparations for the World Cup, the whole Six Nations experience did.

"It was a sense of building towards the World Cup, we had a massively settled team, a lot of boys coming to the end of their careers.

"It was last-chance saloon for a number of them and we knew we wouldn't have a better chance than we did then.

"It was a lot more settled team back then. You look at the New Zealand game for the current squad back in November, when compared with 12 months earlier there was only two players who played both games.

"Whereas in 2003 the squad had been together for two or three years with the exception of maybe one or two players coming in.

"In international rugby one year is a massive difference, and the job for us now is to make sure we keep building into the Six Nations."

Thompson starts on the bench at the Millennium Stadium tonight, with the 32-year-old still taking as much as he can from every England chance he gets, after a neck injury four years ago almost signalled the end of his career.

Dylan Hartley is Johnson's first-choice hooker, a dynamic young player that forms part of an energetic backbone of a team that inspires Thompson to feel confidence in England's prospects.

"It's a lot younger squad, but still some great players," he said.

"Where there was Jonny (Wilkinson) eight years ago, now Toby Flood is showing he's more than capable; Ben Youngs is like Matt Dawson was, he's playing well, making the breaks, he's a top lad which always helps.

"(Prop) Dan Cole's playing really well at international level, phenomenal really, so there are a lot of good young players around at the moment.

"For a young squad it's good to have some of the harsh lessons that we have had, much better to have those in the Autumn Internationals than in the World Cup.

"Plus you have the experienced old heads who can guide you through, like Mike Tindall, who I know gets talked down a lot, but when it comes to the big games he really pulls it out of the bag.

"And for me I hope I can still do that. I'm still feeling fighting fit, I want to be part of it. International rugby is a 22-man game now.

"Even if you start or on the bench, everyone has a job to do. It's critical if you come off the bench, you've got to go on and win games, that's where New Zealand have proved over the last two or three years why they are the best in the world, because if they're losing games they've got proven match-winners coming off the bench who can win a game."

Now 18 months into the second coming of his international career – one which scaled the heights of the Telstra Stadium – a trip to Cardiff still stirs the passion in Thompson.

"I still get excited," he said. "I'm enjoying it, I love singing the national anthem and playing for my country.

"When I came back it wasn't just to play club rugby it was to get back to the top of the game, and that's what I'm trying to do.

"The World Cup is in my sights now, I just need to make sure I'm on that plane over there because when you're out there there's no telling what might happen.

"And this is a massive Six Nations for us, for the whole momentum of the team.

"We had highs and lows in the autumn, we knew we were going to have.

"The way it ended against South Africa (November) was disappointing, so we need to come out firing against Wales, go down there and win.

"The thing is, I don't know if many people say it but there's nothing worse than losing that first match because suddenly the grand slam dream's gone straight away.

"You can still win the Six Nations, but in your heart you want to be a grand slam winner. You really want to keep that hope alive.

"It's going to be a brutal game down there, it always is, and hopefully I can be a part of that.

"It's one of the most intimidating places to play in, especially for an Englishman, but it should be good."

Thompson's six nations career

2002: P5 W4 L1 = second

2003: P5 W5 = grand slam

2004: P5 W3 L2 = third

2005: P5 W2 L3 = fourth

2006: P5 W2 L3 = fourth

2010: P4 W2 D1 L1 = second

Thompson's overall record in his six championships:

Played 29 Won 18 Lost 10 Drawn 1.