Prodigies who carry the burden of hope

No doubting the talent of Thomas; FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP
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The Independent Online
There is something inherently unfair about burdening a slender 21-year-old with the hopes of a nation praying for salvation, and if Arwel Thomas knows nothing else he knows that, in Welsh rugby, goodwill - which is another way of saying patience - lasts only as long as the next performance.

As the elfin stand-off contemplates his status as would-be saviour, with Scottish progress towards a Grand Slam to stop at Cardiff Arms Park this afternoon, he needs refer no further back than his immediate predecessor to find how cruel life can be for the wearer of the Wales No 10. For every Barry John, there is a Neil Jenkins; for every Phil Bennett, a Colin Stephens.

In fact if Thomas has studied his history he will be aware that even Bennett - yes, Phil Bennett himself - was suddenly, though only temporarily, relegated to third in the outside-half line by a quirky selectorial decision in 1976. If it could happen then, it could most certainly happen now.

If Thomas is therefore determined to enjoy it while he may, affecting insouciance at the inflated expectation that has come with two performances of variable quality but infinite promise, who can blame him? Jenkins, whom he has succeeded, was as bright a young thing when he made the Wales team as a still more callow 19-year-old and in the five years since has had more domestic vilification than any rugby player should have to tolerate.

So Thomas cannot say he has not been warned and when things turn bad, as doubtless they must, he says he will just grin and bear it on his not- so-broad shoulders. "I wouldn't say it worries me and I certainly don't let it affect me when I'm on the field, but I could hardly pretend the status of the outside-half in Welsh rugby hasn't been at the back of my mind since I was first picked for Wales," he said.

"I am the decision-maker, so there is more pressure, more spotlight on me, more discussion about me. So far I've enjoyed all the attention. I'm well aware of how far I have still to go but I've been satisfied with the way I played against Italy and England. If things go well you'll get the praise, and if they go wrong you are bound to be slated. I know Neil has had problems with the press but it will be up to me to take it in my stride when the time comes."

The defining moment, the heart-stopping seconds when he established his credibility, came when Thomas tapped that kickable penalty at Twickenham. At first he was unsupported, confronted by a phalanx of England forwards. Was it panic or perspicacity that caused him to U-turn from right to left? Whatever, it produced Hemi Taylor's try when after 10 minutes' play most people would have taken the safe, soft option.

By this and other means Thomas has given the Welsh public more than hope, which has sprung eternal since the close of the Seventies golden era. That he should be an outside-half with the precious gift of a basic instinct, of intrinsic qualities that cannot be coached, means that for the first time since the Jonathan Davies years they have expectation.

They see in Thomas a personification of an innate ability, still common in Wales, which you either have or you do not. Undoubtedly he has much to learn about every aspect of outside-half play - about when and where to kick, when and where to pass, when and where to run - and the English and Italian games showed his judgement to be occasionally suspect. But he has nothing whatever to learn about being a rugby player.

Strange to relate, then, that he came so late to the outside-half position. Since being capped, Thomas's waif-like appearance has been the subject of considerable comment, and his lack of size has impacted on his rugby career ever since he took up the game in the same Swansea Valley primary school that produced two recent Wales captains, Bleddyn Bowen and Robert Jones.

Initially it was Thomas's desire to play scrum-half, simply to get his hands on the ball as often as possible, and when he left Trebanos School for Cwmtawe Comprehensive, a mile or two up the valley in Pontardawe, this was where he stayed despite having changed his positional preference. "We had a boy at outside-half who was much bigger than me and could kick the ball a long way," he said.

Philip Evans went on to play for Welsh Schools - to his intense chagrin, Thomas, still playing scrum-half, was not even nominated for the district trials - and is now the outside-half for Vardre, another Swansea Valley club who are in the Fourth Division of the Heineken League. Thomas plays not only for Wales but for Bristol in the First Division of the Courage Championship.

"I went through a very bad phase at school because I was so small, and it wasn't until I got into youth rugby that things began to change. I had a bit of a growth spurt and when Trebanos came up against Vardre - and Philip Evans - in the district youth cup final we won. It was an enormous confidence-booster to see for myself that I could get the better of him and in the end I played for Welsh Youth."

Since when things have come in a rush. Thomas began his senior career with Neath last season, a commanding performance against Swansea earning him attention and acclaim. He went on to represent Wales Under-21 but could not sustain his early progress and was seldom selected for Neath once he had decided to join Bristol.

The plan was for Thomas to do a two-year Higher National Certificate course in leisure management at Filton Technical College but he recently abandoned his studies and is now a free agent pending the introduction of professionalism to English club rugby next season. His name has been lucratively linked with Harlequins but his only comment on his future is that he is keeping his options open.

Bristol, we may be certain, are preparing their counter-offer and Thomas owes his club a debt for the leap of imagination they have made in broadening his horizons by removing him from the notoriously incestuous world of Welsh rugby. "Playing in the Courage league is bound to make a better player of me because every game every week is a high-pressure situation," he said.

"You have to get used to playing close games in a way that is not the case in Wales, where some of the First Division matches are far too one- sided to be in anyone's interests. I would have thought it's inevitable that more Welsh players will make the move to England, basically because there's more money as well as better rugby there. I've no doubt I did the right thing when I joined Bristol."

As recently as December, when he made it into the Wales squad for the first time, Thomas aimed no higher than the bench. He more or less conceded he was not ready to make the final step, and at Bristol, Brian Hanlon, the club's coaching co-ordinator from New Zealand, was sufficiently alarmed that his outside-half's elevation might be premature to insist he first needed another year in English rugby.

In which case, he would not have been facing Scotland today. "I have to say things have changed in a bewilderingly short space of time," Thomas concluded. "I was quite prepared to play second fiddle to Neil Jenkins for this season at least but all of a sudden I had my chance when he was injured. And now I would say I am as ready as I'll ever be." Of course.