Dreamland is now history for Thomas

Hugh Godwin sees elfin Arwel become a man of genuine substance
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A gust of wind recorded at 96mph put Swansea on the weather map last week, around the time that Arwel Thomas was named in a Wales Test squad after a gap of two years. The weather rather than the news, you sense, was more likely to blow the Swansea fly-half off his feet.

A gust of wind recorded at 96mph put Swansea on the weather map last week, around the time that Arwel Thomas was named in a Wales Test squad after a gap of two years. The weather rather than the news, you sense, was more likely to blow the Swansea fly-half off his feet.

Thomas has settled his bill at the Heartache Hotel of Wales selection and rejection. His last Test appearance was against South Africa in June 1998, and he has yet to be capped under Graham Henry. When Thomas first took possession of the near-deified No 10 jersey, it was as a carefree, callow 21-year-old, living a student lifestyle in Bristol, where he had moved from his first club, Neath. Now Thomas is a married man, with an 11-month old daughter, Nia to provide for. He will be 26 on Wednesday.

"A lot of things go with being the Wales outside-half," Thomas said this week. "When I first got it, it was a dream. It was every boy's dream. This time, it feels different. Not a dream, but something I've worked for." With Samoa bringing a weakened side to the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, Thomas, after a good run of performances for Swansea, may even start ahead of the Cardiff points machine, Neil Jenkins.

If Thomas is indeed to add to his 20 caps, there will be more headlines to squeeze into an already bulging collection. As he says, it goes with the position. His bare-faced cheek in attacking England almost single-handed in an early appearance at Twickenham; the Forrest Gump impression in dotting a try down a hair's breadth from the dead ball line at Murrayfield; a try-scoring finger in the dyke as the Springboks submerged a massively under-strength Wales with 15 tries three summers ago, when Jenkins and many others stayed at home.

"To be honest, I didn't really miss it for the first year," Thomas said of his banishment by Henry, who described him as "defensively frail". "It was only when the World Cup was on, with the new stadium being built, that I realised I wanted it back." Henry took Thomas on the tour to Argentina in 1999, and dealt him the back-handed compliment of inclusion for two non-cap matches, against the USA (as a replacement) and the French Barbarians. But for the most part the Kiwi has stuck with Jenkins, while apparently grooming Llanelli's Stephen Jones for the 2003 World Cup. Even now, the issue is clouded by Friday's Wales A match against New Zealand A, also at the Millennium Stadium, in which Jones will probably play, shadowed by Bridgend's Craig Warlow.

Henry has passed the odd tip to Thomas, via the Swansea coach, John Plumtree. "He said I needed to improve my concentration, to do the right thing when it's needed," said Thomas, who this year rejected a substantial offer to move to a French club.

He has not stood still in the wilderness years. In 1999 he scored 95 points in five matches for the Grand Slam winning Wales A side, and the Rugby Annual for Wales described him as: "a dazzling catalyst... capable of ripping defences apart". Last season, Thomas was the leading scorer in the Welsh-Scottish League, with 259 points. He never asked to be called a genius, but does lay justifiable claim to being an accomplished goal-kicker. The current campaign, he says, took a turn for the better for Swansea with wins over Edinburgh and Ebbw Vale that led into four straight victories in the Heineken Cup. Memories of Thomas's three dropped goals to beat Stade Français are fresh, but Swansea fans have not forgotten either his 40-metre injury time penalty at the Arms Park last May that shattered Cardiff's proud sequence of 43 home wins.

The Wales pack now is more substantial than the one Thomas played behind. Yet his 10 Test tries, a Wales record for a fly-half, put Jenkins' six in 60 appearances in the position firmly in the shade. The pair will join up with the rest of the 22-man party at the Vale of Glamorgan leisure complex tonight; the team for Saturday is announced tomorrow. A raft of Samoa's better-known players - including Inga Tuigamala, Brian Lima, Trevor Leota and Junior Paramore - will be missing because their union cannot afford to pay them, and the last thing Henry wants is the joke from the 1991 World Cup, about not even losing to the whole of Samoa, making a comeback.

Yet if Thomas is still seen as a gamble, why is he in the squad? "The debate about outside-half will go on long after Neil and I have stopped playing," Thomas said. "It's part of Welsh culture. I try not to think about it. If I get a chance, hopefully my performance will be good enough to keep me in. As you get older, you change. Nothing stays the same forever."

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