Lydia Thompson Exclusive – Red Roses wing talks Black Ferns redemption, self-doubt and gratitude

©RFU Collection via Getty Images

This Saturday when England take to the field against New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup in Auckland, it will be the third time that a Red Roses squad Lydia Thompson has been involved in has reached the showpiece game.

Over an international career that began a decade ago, Thompson has achieved much, including a Commonwealth Games bronze medal in 2018, playing at three World Cups and in 2017 was nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year.

Sat in her hotel room in New Zealand on Tuesday night, the 30-year-old is relaxing after another day’s training. Just the one game stands between the wing and her teammates lifting the World Cup for a second time in eight years, the Black Ferns the final hurdle to overcome after beating Canada last weekend 26-19 at Eden Park in the semi-finals.

Thompson has played in three games this tournament, starting and scoring two tries against Fiji and contributing to the victory over France in the pool stage and win Australia in the quarter-finals and is now focussing on selection for the Final this week.

It will be an interesting challenge at the weekend, England having beaten the Black Ferns in back-to-back games last autumn, the side changing coaches at the start of this year and as yet are unbeaten under Wayne Smith.

Saturday’s game will also be a repeat of the World Cup final in 2017. That day it was New Zealand who ended that game in Belfast as winners, Thompson scoring a try as New Zealand won the contest 41-32.

“It is awesome that you get to play that game five years on,” Thompson said. “What an incredible opportunity. Whether I am in that team or not, I am excited for it. I am really, really excited for it.

“We know how good they are as a team and as a country, their passion for rugby and with hosting a World Cup, we have really seen that and felt that. I think you couldn’t write a better World Cup Final from our perspective.

“It is an awesome opportunity to go out there and really prove ourselves for 80 minutes of why we deserve to come away with that trophy.”

World Cup life

It is a cliché to measure things in World Cups, although it is often appropriate and in the case of Thompson with this being her third World Cup campaign. 

As a 22-year-old in 2014, just two years into an international career the Worcester Warriors back was included in Gary Street’s squad before being injured in the group stages and forced to watch the rest of the tournament from the side lines as her teammates ultimately won the tournament, that disappointment laying the foundation for the rest of Thompson’s career.

“I think it is so crucial it happened when it did,” Thompson said. “I was young, and I had a bit of speed, a bit of talent, very raw and I think that injury made me realise a couple of things. Firstly, how much rugby meant to me. It made me determined to get back into an England shirt.

“It also made me realise how important it is to look after yourself and take real ownership over your body, how you manage that and I worked relentlessly with a physio who is now an amazing friend of mine. I wouldn’t be here without her input.

“At the time, we weren’t professionals, so I kind of made the decision to be a professional even if I had to work to earn money at the same time. My attitude to rugby was going to be that was my job. That really put me in a good place now.

“I look back so fondly and so happily because I got to know a lot of the players who retired following that World Cup; your Sophie Hemming’s, Jo McGilchrist’s, your Kat Merchant’s. They stepped away from rugby following that game, and it was awesome to see the journey they had been on, to then to get that World Cup medal meant so much.

“I still look at that game, the final, as one of my favourite games because I knew those people and I knew how much it meant to them. I’m really grateful for the whole experience. The good and the bad.”

In the years that followed, Thompson was meticulous in her preparation. Taking every available physio slot, a regular gym routine and becoming a student of the game, it should come as little surprise that at the time of speaking the wing has 45 tries in 57 appearances for her country.

Earning professional contracts in the years that followed – rugby only taking a backseat when the 30-year-old returned to work as an occupational therapist with the NHS during lockdown – to play both seven-a-side and 15-a-side rugby for England, Thompson has seen elite women’s rugby change plenty over the past two decades.

©RFU Collection via Getty Images

Born and raised in Stourbridge, the wing describes her family as “rugby loving”. Childhood memories include watching the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final, took up the game at 11 with Stourbridge and around the time Thompson was looking to move to Worcester Warriors in order to continue a burgeoning rugby career, before being asked by her father if she wanted to watch the 2010 World Cup Final between England and New Zealand, the Black Ferns winning 13-10 at the Twickenham Stoop.

“That was my first time ever seeing women in an international,” Thompson said. “What a way to be introduced to international rugby. It was awesome. I feel like it really made me realise how far you could go with something you loved. I just didn’t realise you could take it any further than a Sunday match. So, to see it on the world stage was just awesome.

“To realise women could pull on an England shirt, it really did light that fire in me. Whether I thought I would ever be good enough, I didn’t think too hard. I just knew that there was potential and a possibility to do so.

“It was on telly. I’m not sure how we did it. We had to watch one half of the game on one channel and then tune in online. There was something about it that I remember not being able to understand.

“I watched it with my dad, and he just said, ‘the women are playing in this World Cup, shall we try and find it?’. I’m very grateful that we did.”

Feelings of self-doubt

“There’s so many sliding door moments,” Thompson said. “I am really not a confident person. I have got a deep desire and competitiveness, but I really have to push that.

“So, to be an international rugby player probably wasn’t the most natural route for someone like me. I wouldn’t have believed you back then it would be my job.”

It is almost a surprise when Thompson talks about having a lack of confidence. Seeing players out on the field, you have to think that whichever athlete it is, they are full to the brim with belief in their own talents.

For Thompson, it is a feeling that has been present throughout the entirety of her life. A real challenge at one stage, as time has gone on the wing has instead come to embrace it, especially having seen others talk openly and honestly about their own experiences of self-doubt.

“I am lucky to be an occupational therapist, so I have done some training in acceptance and commitment therapy,” Thompson said. “I was in a lecture and all these psychologists were talking about how they had that deep fear of not being good enough.

“You are talking about people that have got a PhD, and them saying ‘I am not good enough’ and having that vulnerability, you think at one point in your life you are going to sus it and you are going to have a solution and you are going to feel good enough, I think I have started to learn more that ‘I am good enough’ is part of me and that’s the driver for a lot.

“I could work out a way to get rid of it or I could embrace it, and because of that I am diligent and give everything to a situation and what I really care about because of that. 

“As much as it would be nice not to have the self-doubt and that little critic inside you, I have realised because of that I am where I am today.”

‘You couldn’t write it’

On Saturday, the World Cup Final will kick-off at 06:30. Plenty will be starting off their weekend with a bang, hoping that the Red Roses are able to mirror the success of the Lionesses in lifting a trophy and capture the imagination of thousands in the process.

It is already known that England will be hosting the 2025 World Cup and in the Six Nations will be hosting France in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations at Twickenham Stadium. A win would go a long way to selling out the 80,000 capacity arena at the end of March, but while a 30 game winning streak is the current reality, Thompson and the rest of the England squad are more than aware of the challenges that women’s rugby in England has faced.

Learning about the foundations of the Red Roses that we know today and the organisation of the first World Cup while in camp, it has helped bind the team, with some of Deborah Griffin, Sue Dorrington, Alice D. Cooper and Mary Forsyth in New Zealand to lend a word when called upon.

“We have put a lot more time and appreciation in understanding our history as a women’s rugby team and getting former Red Roses to talk about their experiences,” Thompson said.

“I think that’s just so critical in understanding when you put on that shirt you are not just representing yourself and your family, you’re representing a history and an incredible group of women who made sure it was normal for women to pull on rugby shirts week in and week out, then to say, ‘we deserve a World Cup’. 

“The stories that go with that are just brilliant. The characters who tell those stories are fantastic women and we are really lucky. We have really taken ownership of making sure that’s part of our history and our current team are aware of that.

“I feel like it’s really an honour to pull on an England shirt and know those women have paved the way for this to be possible.”

One of six players left from that 2014 World Cup winning side initially selected to go to New Zealand, there is an element of playing for the past there too. Of course, it was not all that long ago, the introduction of professionalism almost underlining the impressiveness of the victory eight years ago and the challenges players faced to make a living and achieve their rugby dreams.

Thompson describes her and her teammates then as being “professional with a small p”, the likes of Danielle Waterman and Kat Merchant taking the young back under their wing at and doing extras with the fledgling international after training, helping sculpt an international future that has seen the 30-year-old contribute to three consecutive World Cup campaigns.

“Genuinely, I couldn’t write it,” Thompson said. “I wouldn’t believe you if you told me. It is pretty special to be honest. I think it is something I am so grateful for, and I have realised how fleeting this is.

“It’s a moment in my life that I want to embrace fully and to enjoy, because it will be over soon. One day it is all gone. I am incredibly grateful and fortunate to be sitting where I am today.”