Justin Thomas should be forgiven his mistake against England and be encouraged to run rather than kick at the opposition

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The Independent Online
Why do British sides persist in giving away possession? Twice I have heard Wayne Shelford, the great New Zealand No 8, ask this question. On the first occasion it was at a post-match press conference at Twickenham. On the second it was at a rugby dinner in central London. It was clearly something about which he felt strongly.

Possession, he told us, was a precious commodity, the most valuable in the game. He might have been the late and largely unlamented Shah of Iran talking about oil, and denouncing the Western world for wasting it.

The form of waste which Shelford had in mind was quite clear. He was not referring to a loss of possession in ruck or maul, on one's own throw into the line-out or even on one's own put-in to the scrum. That could happen to anyone, though strikes against the head are becoming increasingly rare. No, Shelford was referring specifically to kicks downfield which were made in the vague hope that something would come of them, but which succeeded merely in handing the ball over to the other side.

I kept thinking of his words as I watched the England and Wales match on Saturday. This time I was not in the press box but in a seat high in the West Stand. Accordingly the pattern of play was rendered more emphatically, even if some of the detail (later recovered by my video recorder) may have been lost.

Kevin Bowring, the Welsh coach, is clearly an intelligent man. But I do not think the style he imposed on the Welsh side and, in particular, on Justin Thomas was specially clever. Time and again the Welsh full-back kicked the ball upfield in the general direction of Mike Catt, in the expectation that Catt would make a mess of things.

In view of Catt's recent form for England, this was not a wholly unreasonable hope. Why Jack Rowell, if he really wants to play the sort of rugby he claims to want, does not recall Paul Hull - the most unjustly treated player in the whole of England - continues to puzzle me. This, however, is not the point at issue.

Catt generally would make a mess of it, to the extent of failing to find touch. Justin Thomas would then proceed to catch the ball (once he knocked on badly) and put in a repeat performance, hoofing it upfield. Catt would finally find a poor touch.

What was the object of the exercise? It was, we are told, not only to "put pressure on Catt" but also to "keep the game away from the English forwards". Wales are fortunate that Catt is no Serge Blanco, though last season he hinted that he might turn out to be one. Blanco would have set up or himself scored several times. Catt failed to do this. And all Wales did was throw - or, rather, kick - away possession.

Thomas was chosen as an attacking full-back whose greatest strength was his speedy and elusive running. In fact I thought he was about to embark on a frolic of his own when he started to run from behind his own line rather than touch down or kick more or less immediately. Instead he moved up to his own 22 only to put in a low kick which Jeremy Guscott charged down; the rest we know.

Barry John has suggested in what we old journalists have been taught to call Another Newspaper that Justin Thomas should be replaced by Mike Rayer. Certainly Rayer is another unlucky player, almost as unlucky as Hull. Nevertheless I think Thomas should be forgiven his mistake and encouraged to run rather than kick at the opposition.

John has also suggested that Nigel Davies should be replaced at inside centre by Neil Jenkins. I am more sympathetic to this, though not because he had a specially bad game. It was not as good a game as that enjoyed by his outside centre, Leigh Davies, whose strong running made Hemi Taylor's try and who looks like being in the Welsh side for a decade. Still, Nigel Davies put in some good tackles. I would none the less bring back Jenkins as a threequarter. He is a more reliable place kicker than Arwel Thomas, and his presence would take some of the weight off Thomas's shoulders.

If Robert Howley was the man, then, in a game that is losing its exuberance and individuality, Arwel Thomas was the personality of the match. I am not sure what Geoff Cooke had in mind when he said afterwards that Thomas was a boy among men. If he meant that the new Welsh outside-half played in an immature way, he was manifestly wrong. If, however, he meant that Thomas looked even younger than his 21 years, like a waif from a Victorian orphanage, he was clearly right. Long may there be a place in rugby for someone of 5ft 8in and 10st 10lb - though he might not get into any side run by the muscle-obsessed Cooke.

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