How red-headed rogue Lance Thompson became cult hero
"Don't worry mate, let me handle this."
Jason Stevens is running a high school coaching clinic in the mid 1990s in the St George area.
And Lance Thompson, still well and truly young enough to be wearing a PE uniform and looking up at the first-grade prop, is pushing him aside to take charge of the drill.
"That was Thommo," the former NSW and Australian representative told NRL.com.
"When he came on so early, he was already showing you up, already taking charge. He was already bench-pressing more than seasoned players in the gym. He was just so naturally strong.
"I remember in his first game [against Cronulla in 1995 when Thompson was still just 17] I tipped the ball onto him for his first touch.
"He broke the line and made a massive run, and there wasn't much of a gap for him to go through but he was just so skilful early on in his career."
Like countless ex-teammates, coaches, friends, family and the wider rugby league land, Stevens was shocked by the death of Thompson, aged 40, the red-headed rogue who grew larger than life in the red and white.
A few months after his 18th birthday Thompson was playing in 1996 grand final for St George, a loss to Manly that left him broken on the SFS turf, his impending HSC exams later that year the furthest thing from his mind.
From those same formative years, the legendary tale along the lines of Thompson being so determined not to miss a game while still at school that he pulled out his braces with a pair of pliers.
“I remember something like that,” said Anthony Mundine, another former Dragons teammate.
“Thommo wasn’t the biggest guy, he wouldn’t have been 100kg and he was a rugged player, very tough and had that mentality and will that drove him.”
Mundine and Thompson go back to their schoolyard days together, finding their way to the top grade with St George and then when the club merged with Illawarra in 1999.
Success came to the joint-venture club immediately given the strong combined rosters and generous salary cap concessions that brought them together.
The inevitable tension in amalgamating two proud clubs surfaced too, with Thompson once again handling it.
“There was a lot of passion there for his beloved St George and I had chats with him because there was a bit of Wollongong versus St George," Andrew Farrar, co-coach of that first Dragons side, said.
"But he was one of the blokes who really embraced the joint venture. He was just that keen to play footy, he was always first there and always keen to train. He was old school. He played busted.
"That was never a problem for Thommo. He was never the first into the physio room or the medical room, he was probably the last."
Brian Smith – the man who gave Thompson that debut against Cronulla – knew the talent he had on his hands back then.
But the competitive drive across 239 games with the Dragons and Sharks trumped the natural ability in both impressions then and memories now.
"I admired his passion for his sport and his competitive attitude throughout his career," Smith said.
"Lance always wanted to win every battle, from the match he was in, to the loose ball on the ground. He was a great clubman and teammate and will be sadly missed by all who knew and respected him."
When Thompson parted ways with the Dragons at the end of 2005, they copped the brunt of his fire.
The local junior stormed out of their end-of-season presentation night under the belief he was being shuffled out to ease salary cap pressure.
Always able to throw fists with the best of them – fighting twice on Mundine's undercards while still playing first grade – Thompson fought on first via the press, and then at arch-rivals Cronulla for another two seasons.
Thompson battled off-field issues at different stages of his career. A marriage breakdown rocked him. Alcohol took its toll at times, most famously when he fronted for a pre-season recovery session still celebrating his 26th birthday with a beer in hand.
His sudden death in his Cronulla apartment aged 40 has prompted questions, though police have said there was no evidence of self-harm or suspicious circumstances.
Friends and those who had come across Thompson recently reported him to be in good spirits, the former back-rower first managing footballers including Andrew Fifita and the Stanley brothers Chas and Kyle, and then running restaurants in the south of Sydney after hanging up his boots.
"I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago and he seemed great," Mundine said.
"Me and Thommo always got along. I miss the brother, just knowing he is not here. I am going to be rocked and shocked for a couple of weeks before I come to terms with reality.
"For me he was a loving guy, his family loved him, his friends loved him."
Among all the fond Thompson memories – THAT Falcon as Melbourne rattled up a 70-10 demolition job on his side in 2000, his front row seat for Nathan Brown's slap on Trent Barrett three years later – family surfaces immediately.
Ben Creagh – a Thompson favourite as "another ranga back-rower coming through the club" – remembers a particular devotion to his daughter, Shalisse.
Finally called it a day in 2008, asking then-Cronulla coach Ricky Stuart for one last game to farewell the fans, it was because Thompson couldn't keep up with young Shalisse at the local park.
Thompson's extension of simple, but rare kindness to Creagh's own kin speaks to numerous other tales of a popular figure, mourned by many.
"When I was still just a young guy at the start of my career, he always took the time out after training or after games to find my parents and go and have a chat with them," Creagh said.
"My mum and dad always remembered that, and for a club legend to go out of his way to find your family and welcome them, keep coming back to them as they were like me, still working out football as a career, they really appreciated that.
"The other thing about Thommo, he really did seem like a great dad.
"His daughter was always at our captain's runs and training, jumping all over him at training and she was a big part of his life. She was really important to him and it's a really sad day for his family."