Gareth Thomas: 'My best memory comes from Murrayfield'
The former union star plays at a familiar ground today for the Super League fraternity's annual celebration
Gareth Thomas may be the least experienced rugby league player in action in Edinburgh this weekend, but he is the only one who has lost count of the number of appearances he has made at Murrayfield. In his previous life, Thomas played there for Wales, Cardiff and Toulouse.
"I couldn't even tell you how many times, but probably more than 10, and I have some good memories," he says. "We won a Grand Slam there, had another game where we were 30-odd points ahead at half-time and could relax and enjoy the second half, and I played there for Cardiff against Edinburgh. I also won a European Cup there with Toulouse, which is my best club memory."
One thing Thomas never expected was to be going back there as a rugby league player. He does so as a member of the Wrexham-based Crusaders side, who kick off the Murrayfield Magic weekend by playing Bradford today in the first of seven Super League matches. For the man who won a record 100 caps for Wales, it will take his total of league games to half a dozen. "It's bound to be a bit special for me going back to Murrayfield, a place with so much history. Also, it's not the biggest ground, so if you have a decent crowd there's always a good atmosphere."
It is anybody's guess how many will be there to see Thomas and his Crusaders line up against the Bulls, but there will certainly not be the full house he has played in front of at Murrayfield in the past. As a newcomer to the game, however, he has no doubts that the event is worthwhile: "Rugby league is a great game, as I've found, but it tends to be confined to a small area. Anything that takes it to a new audience has to be a good thing. It's difficult for fans and players having to travel, but the game will benefit in the long term."
Despite being keen to emphasise his novice status, Thomas has undeniably made progress since his debut against the Catalan Dragons in March. That day, he paid the painful price for trying to run head-first through some of the French side's biggest forwards. By contrast, his first try, against Wakefield in April, highlighted the footwork that makes him such an effective finisher. "I'm far from the complete rugby league player yet, but with every training session and every match I'm learning," he explains. "It was good to get that first try, because as a winger you're judged a bit like a striker in football, by whether you're scoring or not. The main thing is that I'm contributing to the team."
Defence has been a rather thornier issue for the 35-year-old. There have been times where his inexperience has seen him pulled out of position. "There is a difference, but it's a good difference, because you have to concentrate more on the game," he says. "In union, you might get five or 10 minutes on the wing where you don't have to do anything. In league, you can't ever do that, because there are people ready to exploit it if you clock off for a moment."
For all his enthusiasm for his new code, Thomas is only committed to this season, with another season's option after that. He says that he is so absorbed in what he is doing that he hasn't thought beyond this year. One thing he says will not influence any decision is the fact that, while he was never aware of any homophobic hostility in union, he has suffered it on one occasion in his short career in league. That was at Castleford in his second game, where, as the highest-profile rugby player of either code to come out as openly gay, he was given a hard time by a section of the home supporters.
Thomas has been heartened by the general condemnation of that bigotry, from the club and from the game as a whole: "I don't really want to highlight an isolated incident. I've been to Wakefield and Bradford since then and there's been no problem at all."
Nor has there been any problem with opposition players. "League players have been great and I've had some good talks about the game. Rugby's a fraternity, whether it's league or union, and everyone pretty much gets on."
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