STEVE THOMPSON will strike a blow for the "fat boys" of rugby when he lines up for England in the World Cup final against Australia.
The Northampton star was transformed five years ago from an ordinary club flanker into an extraordinary international hooker by his club coach, Scotland's Ian McGeechan.
For the last 18 months he has been the spearhead of England's formidable front row - making the position his own with a series of rampaging performances.
Tomorrow, lifting the Webb Ellis trophy at the Telstra stadium would complete a remarkable journey for Thompson - taking him from obscurity to what he considers the most elite club in the world, namely a World Cup-winning front row.
"I know everyone says the front row is a little club on its own," said Thompson.
"I didn't believe it at first, but it's true. "You can't be quite right to ram your head into someone as hard as you can and then keep doing it and doing it and actually enjoy it. I think that's the scary part.
"Yes, we are a bit freaky - but that's what keeps the game going. It's brilliant that there is a place in the game for fat boys like us.
"There's not another club like it in the world. Wherever you go people all talk about the front row. You can look people in the eye who have played there - even if it's at junior club level - and they'll always have a beer for you. It's quite weird actually."
Thompson illustrates the camaraderie by noting the reaction of New Zealand prop Kees Meuuws who stopped pushing when Australian opposite number Ben Darwin indicated his distress in the semi-final with the chilling scream of "Neck...neck."
Darwin is recovering in hospital with a prolapsed disc and may never play again.
But it could have been so much worse. "If he'd wanted to he could have done him some serious damage - but as soon as he heard the word 'neck' everyone stopped," said Thompson.
"That's the great thing about rugby that pulls people together."
The front-row role is one which Thompson grew into gradually until England head coach Clive Woodward spotted the potential of his robust mobility - and he hasn't looked back since.
"I thought Geech (McGeechan) was a madman at first," said Thompson, recalling the day it was suggested he switch positions.
"I thought he'd been drinking. But it has really paid off for me, and I've enjoyed my rugby ever since. It gives me all the rewards I can get out of rugby.
"It gives me the confrontation I can get out of the front row, plus it's not as bad as being a prop and enables me to run around the park and have a bit of freedom."
He admits getting "uptight" in the first couple of games of this World Cup against Georgia and South Africa - "I played the game the whole week and when I came to the weekend I was so exhausted I couldn't put in the performance I wanted" - but insists he has since learned to "chill out".
England's Manly base, with its beach culture and beautiful scenery, makes that not the most difficult task even in World Cup final week.
"Sometimes I just relax, sit on the couch and watch films, so it's not the hardest of lives," admitted Thompson.
"Everyone is very relaxed. There's a lot of experience in the squad, and we're all learning off people like Jason Leonard.
"Sometimes you've just got to chill out and take a break from it and then when you have to do some work get straight into it."
He added: "The supporters have been brilliant here. Wherever we go there is just a sea of red and white.
"It's the best sight ever, especially in the game last Sunday when we looked up in the stadium at the national anthem and all you could see was white everywhere and 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' being sung.
"The old 'Barmy Army' just seems to get bigger and bigger."
Thompson insists the England team will not be deflected by criticism, most of it from the local media, about their so-called boring tactics and reliance on the kicking of Jonny Wilkinson.
"Freedom of speech is the best thing that was ever invented," he said.
"People can say what they want and they're entitled to their opinions. It's down to us to keep doing what we're doing and hopefully win the game.
"This is one chance we've got, and we've got to take that."
Simplicity is the key to Thompson's game, plus his new-found ability to blend relaxation with concentration.
"People might not believe me, but I'm just seeing Saturday as another game," he said.
"I speak to some of my friends on the phone and they say 'Gee, you're in a World Cup final' - but it hasn't felt like that yet.
"We're in the same groove as before any international.
"That works for me, and I know so long as I stay calm then I hope I can put in a performance on Saturday."