Rugby Union: Thorburn just happy to be back in black: Former Welsh captain returns to Cardiff for today's Swalec Cup final with outsiders Neath. Steve Bale reports

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THE LAST time Paul Thorburn played at Cardiff Arms Park he was captain of Wales. But that was more than two years ago and now, when the full-back with the Bofors-gun boot is about to reappear there for Neath against Llanelli in this afternoon's Swalec Cup final, he has changed beyond recognition.

Not physically, except maybe for a readier smile, but most certainly psychologically. While Thorburn was in the throes of his international career, he came to seem weighed down by an unsloughable burden. Remember, for instance, the offensive hand gestures at the end of the England match of 1989?

Then came the calamitous tour of Australia two years later and he had had enough. As he wrote at the time to Denis Evans, the Welsh Rugby Union secretary, 'the pressures have become too great for me to handle'. So today's return to the big stage will not evoke even a fleeting nostalgia for his days as Wales's leading man.

'I have never had a moment's regret since I took the decision,' Thorburn said. 'Perhaps I've missed the big occasion, playing in front of the crowd, but that's all. I'm perfectly happy not to have to put up with all the other aspects. It wasn't a decision that took a year to make; I'd had enough and I couldn't see any light at the end of the tunnel.'

Since when, free of cares, he has slipped out of sight and out of mind just as Neath were slipping from their former pre-eminence. In international retirement at the ripe age of 30, Thorburn has had two decent seasons simply enjoying his club rugby, culminating in today's cup final in front of a capacity 51,000. Which is a bit like the old days, really.

He holds a fistful of Wales records - points (304 in 37 matches from 1985-91) and season's points (52 in 1986) among others - but for Thorburn the old days are ancient history. 'I'm as psyched up as I ever was but perhaps it's what happens afterwards that's changed. If the game hasn't gone as planned, I'm not as worried about it as I would once have been.

'What it comes down to is this: when I was playing for Wales people would say Clement should be in or Rayer should be in, whereas now they can say what they like. They don't bother me any more. Maybe you need that pressure to raise your game for internationals but even in club games, if you know you have selectors coming to watch it's bound to affect you.'

There is a hint here of the preoccupation bordering on paranoia which has been evident in Welsh rugby during its fallow years. Thorburn was not alone in being a fine player dragged into unhealthy introspection by the Welsh team's consistent ill fortunes and the consequent media reaction.

The baleful conclusion reached on the '91 tour, when record defeats were accompanied by factionalism and (literally) infighting, was enough to have broken whoever had borne the captain's burden. In fact Thorburn, who by his own admission was broken at the time, has done an impressive personal repair job.

Without him, Wales have struggled just as they did with him - which suggests to Thorburn that at least it was not all his fault. 'I'm disappointed that things don't seem to have improved that much but some of the criticism that was aimed at me at the time has now been proved to be unfair.'

In the aftermath of Australia, Thorburn very nearly finished with rugby completely. Midway through the following season he privately told me it would be his last - only to carry on into this season and fully intend to do so next season as well. Relative obscurity clearly agrees with him.

'I go through phases, some days not wanting it any more and some days wanting it, but the motivation is still there and I have every intention of continuing. I went through some very bad times with Wales in '91 and did think I might as well jack it all in, but I'm glad I didn't.

'I'm looking forward to the cup final very much indeed, even if Llanelli are the favourites. We've had an up- and-down season, perhaps playing better against better opposition. We gave them a lot of trouble when we played down at Stradey; for 60 minutes our forwards had them on the rack and there's no reason why that can't happen again.

'Of course, Llanelli have grown in confidence since then but let's hope they've become over-confident. They've had a wonderful run on their way to the league title but runs have to come to an end sometime. What better team to do it than Neath?'

Given Llanelli's dazzling form, this sounds like a long shot - but then Thorburn is one whose long shots at the Arms Park have included a penalty goal measuring 70 yards 8 1/2 inches for Wales against Scotland, so it would be folly to rule it out altogether.

(Photograph omitted)