Arwel the angel must survive Samoa hell-fire

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The future of Britain's most gifted attacking outside-half may bedecided today.

The future of Britain's most gifted attacking outside-half may bedecided today.

Arwel Thomas may consider humdrum predictability to be a mortal sin, but his enemies - and there are plenty of them out there, grumbling over their pint pots - still wallow around in a sea of hackneyed banality, an ocean of cliché. Every time an eight-year-old mascot sets foot on a pitch in Wales, someone rolls out the "Look, there's Arwel" line. The moment one of the Swansea stand-off's pioneering flights of rugby fancy comes crashing to earth, Barry John's famous comment - "You know there will be a try when Arwel has the ball, but you don't know at which end" - receives a fresh airing. And whenever Thomas gets himself picked for the Test team, he is interrogated about his tackling, or lack of it.

Thomas has been skewered on a three-pronged fork of criticism - lack of size, lack of consistency, lack of realism - from the day Kevin Bowring awarded him his first full cap in 1996, and he found himself on the back foot again this week when Graham Henry named him in the national side for this afternoon's autumnal opener with Samoa in Cardiff. As ever, he acquitted himself well, his answers laced with a self-deprecating humour. "I really don't think about the size issue," he said. "I've had size thrown at me since I was at school, so it's pretty old hat now." The thought of his being left out of Trebanos under-9s on the grounds that he might get hurt was difficult to dispel.

Not even those who believe him to be sprinkled with the same stardust bestowed on other members of the No 10 sainthood - Cliff and Carwyn, Deadly Dai, Barry and Benny and Jiffy - would dream of arguing that little Arwel, all 5ft 8in and 11st of him, can man the barricades like some Henry Honiball of the valleys. It is not that he shirks the heavy-duty aspects of the game, for he has decked his fair share of brutish back-rowers and once punched the combustible French scrum-half Philippe Carbonneau square on the jaw. But the small guy is invariably at a disadvantage when the ball is in opposition hands. Phil Adams, a strapping West Country lock who played alongside Thomas at Bristol, once summed it up by saying: "Having him tackle you is an irritation, like having a wart on your neck."

"You can question my tackling as an individual," agreed Thomas. "But there's more to defence than people realise. You also need awareness and organisation if you're going to keep your line secure. It's about maintaining shape and calling the right defensive patterns, and I can have an input there." He is right, of course. Few players tackle bigger or better than the Samoans, as the Welsh will almost certainly rediscover this afternoon, but Pacific Island teams in general leak more tries than they score. Rugby remains a thinking man's game, and Thomas is a thinker as well as a dreamer.

But is it enough, in today's muscle-bound jungle of a sport, for an outside-half to live off his wits, his instincts, his ingenuity? We should get at least a clue to the riddle as events unfold at the Millennium Stadium, and the outcome will tell us something about the state of the union game in the first year of a new century. No single figure splits the Welsh rugby public as completely as Thomas. His followers see him as the natural custodian of a sacred sporting flame: they venerate him because he plays rugby as the angels might play it, and to hell with the consequences. His opponents, on the other hand, would not touch him with a barge pole the length of the Pembrokeshire coast path: to them, he is too dodgy for words.

And then there are the undecideds, those who are both thrilled and chilled by the idiosyncrasies of a player who makes it up as he goes along.

Henry, a no-frills pragmatist for whom rugby represents the art of the possible, may be as undecided as anyone. He has never before selected Thomas; when the New Zealander took over the Red Dragon reins a little over two years ago, he was utterly dismissive of his talents, although he now claims to have been misinterpreted. Even now, having been forced to bite the bullet by the sheer quality of his outside-half's performances at club level, the coach seems less than wholly convinced.

Some of Thomas's supporters suspect Henry is playing one of his clever games by feeding the Chosen One some rope in the belief that he will suspend himself from the nearest gibbet. Certainly, Thomas can kiss his Test career goodbye if the Samoans go stampeding through the Welsh midfield and so much as threaten to repeat their World Cup victory of 13 months ago.

If he turns it on, though... what then? Is Henry really willing to ignore the eternally prolific Neil Jenkins, whose recent form for Cardiff has been anything but shabby, when the Springboks come knocking at the end of the month? It is an itchy one, and Thomas intends to make it itchier still.

"This is a dream come true for me," he said this week. "I'm getting the same feeling I had when I was first picked as a 22-year-old. If anything, I see this as more of an achievement; I've had to put some real effort to get back, because my confidence was very low at one point. I had a difficult time of it: I was bitterly disappointed at missing out on the World Cup, on some great Welsh victories, on all the excitement surrounding the new stadium."

"Have I changed? Well, I think I've learned how to win rugby matches, if that's what you mean. I know how to handle certain situations on the field that may have been a little beyond me earlier in my career, and I have good players around me in this team: the fact that Scott Gibbs and Mark Taylor are there, keeping the Swansea midfield axis intact, will help no end. But when it comes to game plans and all the rest of it, I still see it as a two-way thing. One of the moments that gave me a big lift was the French victory over New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final. They proved that day that you can still win a game of rugby with a little flair and the willingness to move the ball."

It may just be that rugby, dominated as it is by iron defence, is shifting back into Arwel's orbit. Coaches are beginning to understand - not before time - that the route-one bosh approach will never cut much ice with the Wallabies and All Blacks of this world. As the England backs coach, Brian Ashton, the most inventive strategist for many a mile, said after the World Cup: "So the Wallabies conceded one try in the tournament. You have to congratulate them on their organisation, but it's a terrible indictment of everyone else. The rugby pitch is the same size as it ever was, and there is still space in which to play. What you need to do is think."

And Thomas can do that, no question: he sees lines and angles that would have baffled Pythagoras. Ashton is not alone in describing him as a uniquely talented outside-half, the most naturally gifted attacking force in the British game. If the little cherub clicks today, the sport will feel better about itself at the final whistle than it did at kick-off.