Thompson targets July NRL debut

Departing St Helens prop Luke Thompson is eyeing off an NRL debut within the next month after jetting off to Australia on Saturday.

The 25-year-old was due to join the Canterbury Bulldogs on a three-year deal in 2021, but his refusal to accept Saints’ club-wide pay cut, plus an undisclosed transfer fee, prompted his immediate exit last Friday.

The England international must spend the Australian government’s mandatory 14-day isolation period in a Melbourne hotel before joining his new team-mates at the Sydney club.

That means Thompson could line up as early as Canterbury’s round eight clash with South Sydney on Sunday 5 July, but the Dogs’ round nine visit to the Brisbane Broncos on Saturday 11 July is a more realistic date for the star frontrower’s NRL bow.

“It’s fantastic and he’s been really excited about coming over,” Canterbury coach Dean Pay said on Saturday.

“He gets on a plane tonight (Saturday) so hopefully in another two, three, four weeks we’ll be able to see him and put him out there. He’s champing at the bit to get over here and play a bit of footy.

“He’s a good player. He’s been a quality player over there for a long time and he’s keen to get over here and test himself, so we’re all looking forward to him coming.”

All international arrivals to Australia have had to self-isolate for two weeks in a hotel room since late March, but the New Zealand Warriors received special permission to train outdoors during their 14-day quarantine in Tamworth, five hours north of Sydney.

Thompson hasn’t received the same special treatment, although the Bulldogs have installed a gym in his room and are controlling his nutrition in a bid to fast-track their prized recruit’s NRL debut.

“I think he’s got to go through the two weeks in a hotel,” Pay confirmed.

“He’s been in isolation over there as well, so I mean, once he gets here and gets into the club, we’ll assess him and see where he’s at. He looks after himself so he’s a naturally fit kid; we’ll assess him when he gets here and we’ll go through the process and when he’s ready, he’s ready.”

Thompson’s arrival comes as a huge boost for the struggling Bulldogs, who haven’t qualified for the NRL playoffs since 2016 and only boast a mid-30% win rate since Dean Pay took over as coach in 2018.

And Pay, who is himself a Test prop who represented the Kangaroos ten times during the 1990s, reportedly has another England international in his sights.

Despite a year to run on his Raiders’ contract, John Bateman has been granted permission to negotiate with rival clubs, and the Bulldogs are rumoured to be leading the race for his signature.

Thompson, meanwhile, thanked St Helens on his sooner-than-scheduled departure from the reigning Super League champions.

His rejection of Saints’ pay cut ruffled some fans’ feathers, but the 2019 Harry Sunderland Trophy winner was magnanimous in a farewell letter delivered via social media, pointing to the cash injection St Helens will receive from Canterbury’s transfer fee.

“I do believe it is important for me to put on record that the 2020 season was always about me fulfilling my contract and completing the season at Saints and going out on a high,” Thompson explained on Instagram.

“Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, we have all been without rugby for months with no sign at present of it returning, which has left our club and the sport facing financial difficulties.

“When the opportunity arose for me to switch to the NRL earlier than planned, a move that would make a significant financial contribution to our club, then I agreed to the transfer.

“I have loved every moment of my time at Saints and it has been a privilege to have been a small part of this great club.”