Thomas 'hungry' for crash course in league

Union recruit races against the clock to be ready for his Crusaders debut in fortnight
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The Independent Online

Gareth Thomas has become a Crusaders player and will make his rugby league debut in a fortnight. The former Wales rugby union captain and record cap holder has signed a contract with the Wrexham-based club for the rest of this season, with an option for next.

It is hardly a long-term commitment for either party, but Crusaders will start to get something back for their investment by playing Thomas in the televised home game against the Catalans Dragons on 19 March, with their chief executive, Paul Retout, admitting that they expect "the Thomas factor" to swell what might otherwise be a moderate gate.

"It's an incentive for me because I want to be here for two years. I'm still hungry to play," said the 35-year-old. "I've always watched rugby league and always wanted to play it and now I've got the chance to do that in north Wales."

Thomas has been released from the remaining three months of his contract with the Cardiff Blues and opted for the Crusaders rather than taking up one of a number of offers from rugby union, both as player and coach.

A key man in that decision was Iestyn Harris, with whom Thomas played for Cardiff and Wales and who is now Crusaders' assistant coach. "When he called me up and talked to me about the Crusaders and what they are doing in Wrexham, it soon became apparent that it was a challenge I couldn't resist," Thomas said.

Harris has already spoken to the new boy about playing rugby league for Wales, but Thomas first faces the task of learning a new game in two weeks."He's got a reasonably tough couple of weeks in front of him," said Crusaders' head coach, Brian Noble, confirming that he would play some part against the Catalans. He's an amazing athlete and I'm a huge fan of his talents," Noble added. "He's in fantastic shape and has clearly looked after himself over the years.

"He has all the attributes to succeed in rugby league. He's big and he's strong, has great footwork and isn't afraid to put in a shift in defence as well."

Although yesterday's announcement was undoubtedly a major publicity coup, Noble is adamant that he sees Thomas's main value as being on the rugby field. With his height and strength, the prospect of him getting under the pin-point kicks of Michael Witt, for instance, is an intriguing one.

"This is by far the biggest signing the Crusaders have ever made, if not one of the biggest signings in rugby league history," said Retout, struggling to keep a lid on the hyperbole.

While his ability to adapt remains to be proved, the excitement is understandable. With his 100 caps, Thomas has been an iconic figure in Welsh rugby union. He hit the headlines for another reason in December, when he became the first high-profile union player to come out as gay.

He says that he has experienced no hostility or homophobia since then and does not expect any in rugby league. "I've never encountered any and, although I don't know rugby league, I'm sure I won't there," he said. "It's turned me into a stronger person."

Thomas will not be the first or only gay in the village that is rugby league. The South Sydney, Australia and former Wigan prop, Ian Roberts, came out on the subject of his sexuality in 1995 and remained one of the most respected players in the game for another three seasons.

Thomas has just a couple of weeks before he gets his chance to show that he can earn the same respect.

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