Modern hero of the old school

The Welsh stand-off Jonathan Davies pays tribute to Clem Thomas, a rugby giant of the past
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The Independent Online
Rugby Union, and Welsh rugby in particular, has lost a great character and a strong, wise voice in Clem Thomas who died, aged 67, last Thursday. He was the sort of man we could ill-afford to lose at the best of times but his sudden departure at this turbulent stage in the development of the game has robbed us of an elder statesman who had much to offer.

I have many personal reasons for remembering Clem fondly, but I am more aware that he represented something rare in the game generally. He was a star when rugby union was at the proud heights of amateurism. A Cambridge blue, he became a British Lion and captained Wales and the Barbarians - a true hero of the old school. Yet, he had a modern and realistic approach to the game and its problems. He was the exact opposite of an old fart.

Most die-hard union people question the motives of the modern player. Clem was proud of the game's past but confident it had the resilience to retain much the same spirit during its professional future and I thoroughly agreed with him.

Clem played in the same Swansea team as my father, Len Davies, in the 1950s. My father, who played centre, died when I was 14 but I can remember the Swansea team picture hanging on our lounge wall and my Dad pointing proudly to his former team-mates. Clem was one he particularly admired.

When I played for Neath in the early 1980s, I eventually met Clem and he used to tell me about my father. Clem had a wine bar in Swansea and a few of us used to gather there regularly to chat about rugby and listen to his stories. He had a reputation as a fast and very aggressive wing- forward and he loved to recount his swoops on little outside-halves like me. I got the better of most of the flankers I played against but I was happy he wasn't amongst them. He had this wicked chuckle when talking about some of his deeds.

They were happy learning days for me and because Clem's sons, Greg and Mark, were playing at the time he took a particular interest in up-and- coming players. Many of us benefited from his advice and encouragement.

Welsh players get frequent chances to mix with stars of previous generations. In fact, it is impossible to avoid them. So many have become television, radio or newspaper pundits that everywhere you look there is a hero of the past sitting in judgement.

It puts added pressure on players but you always felt that Clem was on your side. Not that he was soft. Far from it. He wrote like he played and could be brutally honest at times. Because his words could sting, his praise had all the more value. You might come off the field feeling pleased with your performance but if Clem was reporting the game you were inclined to wait until you read his report before you allowed yourself to be completely satisfied.

He kept his hardest words for the unions and when he felt they were on the wrong track he would be fierce in his criticism. When I started contributing to the Independent on Sunday last season, I was proud that my views were in the same newspaper as his.

His final report appeared last Sunday and he told with relish how Swansea annihilated Cardiff. I went off injured at half-time but he still managed to write a kindly word about me. Unfortunately, I didn't see him afterwards and missed the triumphant chuckle he would have greeted me with. He supported the clubs in their breakaway threats but was cheerfully optimistic that the game would get itself back into shape and so it is proving. If rugby could believe in itself as much as Clem did, there would be no worries about the future.