9 June 2002
Hailed as potentially one of the `great players’, the little Welsh wizard has struggled to find the consistency needed to stay in the team
Arwel Thomas is only 27 but for all his slender, still angel-faced youth, he already looks a wizard out of his time. For it was back in 1995 at a Cardiff dinner to honour J P R Williams, Phil Bennett, John Taylor and other Welsh legends of the Seventies that Gareth Edwards had come over and said, “Son, you are going to be one of the greats.” It was an anointing. A year later at The Arms Park, Arwel seemed to be wearing the crown.
But no crown wears as heavy as that of the Welsh outside-half, the heritage of Morgan, Bennett and John. “All I wanted to do,” says Arwel, at 5ft 8in and barely 12 stone a delicate fair-haired Lilluputian in the monstrous world of modern rugby, “was to play for Wales. When I did it was like a dream come true. But I didn’t understand the things that went with it.”
There was an element of wistful weariness as he talked a week ago. It is 18 months since he won the last of his 23 Welsh caps and was then very publicly cast aside by Graham Henry. Last week Arwel was preparing to play for his country again. But not for the touring team in South Africa. This was the Welsh team in the World Sevens, which would involve the embarrassment of a defeat by Russia in Cardiff. “It’s the end of season,” Arwel says, “and we get £800. I am taking my wife and daughter on holiday. It all helps.”
Top sportsmen usually rage against the dying of the light, or if they are young enough to switch it on again, normally insist that normal genius will be resumed as soon as possible.
Arwel Thomas is not like that. “I had my chance and other people have chances now,” he said of Wales’ endless search for an outside-half. “If I was closer to the squad maybe I would have the confidence to go for it,” he adds, “but at the moment I am so far from playing it is not realistic.”
It is a laid-back candour which is endearing and exasperating by turns. “But that’s Arwel,” says Robert Jones, the 53-times-capped former Welsh captain and Thomas’s neighbour in the little village of Trebanos, 30 miles north-east of Swansea. “He is delightful company and has so much natural talent, but his confidence can get affected. He is part of the great Welsh fly-half tradition. He is exceptionally creative and the things he can do with his passing, running and kicking with both feet come right out of the top drawer. Yet there have always been two arguments about him, his temperament and his size.”
It only took three matches for both arguments to surface. After doing well enough in that warm-up against Italy, Arwel did honourably in defeat against England at Twickenham and Scotland in Cardiff before getting what the Irish love to call “the brown-trouser treatment” – stick the ball in the air above the target and make sure about six huge green jerseys jump on him when it lands. “I went underneath and took a bit of a knock,” he remembers. “I didn’t feel any pain but if you look at the video you can see me wobbling. I dropped a couple of passes, missed a couple of kicks at goal and the whole nightmare snowballed.”
“I had been on the crest of the wave but then everything changed. I was really tiny then, not much more than 11-stone and not ready for it physically or mentally. Those were bad memories.”
If Thomas really was the over-delicate little doll that his harsher critics suggest, he could never have mustered the comeback which the next season’s defeat of Scotland at Murrayfield represented. Entrusted by coach Kevin Bowring to play his own attacking game, Thomas was the embodiment of quicksilver daring, the rapier against the claymore, the winged foot against the cloven hoof. It was an afternoon for rugby romantics; this absurdly slight and boyish figure teasing and stretching the Scottish foe and crowning it all with an interception and a 50-yard sprint to score with exuberant arrogance by touching down in the last inches before the dead-ball line.
But quicksilver is a hard substance to shape and defeated skipper Rob Wainwright’s admission that “we didn’t have a clue what he would do” too often applied also to Arwel’s team-mates. “If he was on song, he could tear a team to bits,” Ieuan Evans says, “but if he was not together, he could drive you nuts.” Thomas was a risky selection.
Over the next three years he was in and out of the team but when Graham Henry arrived as “the Great Redeemer” he talked of rugby being a big man’s game. He played Thomas in the warm-up games against Samoa and America in the autumn of 2000 but then only brought him on as a late and unsuccessful substitute which turned what had looked to be a winning game against South Africa. End of Arwel.
Or is it? Part of him seems to accept, even to welcome it. “Some of what people said in the newspapers and on TV was hard to take. Maybe I could manage because I am small; I could sit in the corner of the bar. But my mother would tell how my father felt he could not go down to the pub. That was difficult. Now rugby is not just dreaming. It is my job, it pays the mortage and buys things for your family, pays for your holidays. If you don’t do it properly, you don’t get picked and won’t earn your money. I wished someone had explained all that when I started.”
Ironically this is exactly the mission that Robert Jones has now taken on. Besides his media work with Radio 5 Live, Jones works with Sporttrainwales to develop an education and development programme for rugby apprentices in the Principality. On Friday he was at Swansea, his old and Arwel’s present club who, after an exasperating year, have now signed the ace Australian coach John Connolly from Stade Franais for next season’s attack on the Heineken Cup and other trophies.
“Arwel wants to get into coaching,” Jones says, “and I think he could be very inspirational. It should have all been planned long ago but I still believe he has four or five years of top-quality rugby in him. But he is a confidence player. He needs someone to put an arm around him and tell him if he performs and shows the right attitude the sky could still be the limit.”
“Everyone talks about the modern game and bigger players but when Arwel has performed size has been irrelevant. I remember when Wasps came down to Swansea and everyone said how Dallaglio and Worsley would target him. But he made his breaks, made his tackles, was head and shoulders the best player on the pitch. Just because he turned the switch on.”
The man himself muses on. “I am not as fast as I was,” Arwel says, “I had a knee operation a year ago in February and it has never yet been quite the same. I need to do some extra training, get my pace up, set my goal for playing well for Swansea. Maybe take it from there.”
Once more the wistful note, but there is something else behind it. An edge which Arwel is unable to shout about but which has a sorcerer’s power when he is on song. Those can be wizard’s hands. It would be sad if Wales never saw them cast their spell again.