Rugby star says sorry after homophobic outburst on Twitter

'No malicious intent' in post about gay referee, says lock forward

A Welsh international rugby player was last night forced to apologise after posting a homophobic comment on the social networking website Twitter, just two months after his Wales team-mate Gareth Thomas became the first professional rugby player in Britain to reveal that he was gay.

Lock forward Jonathan Thomas, 27, who has 51 caps for Wales and is set to play in the second row against Scotland in the Six Nations in Cardiff on Saturday, wrote the offensive remarks during an exchange on Twitter yesterday morning with Ian Evans, one of his team-mates at the Welsh club Ospreys.

Evans wrote: "Legs and ass are in bits, can't move." Thomas posted in reply: "U gotta stop hanging round with Nigel Owens!" [a top Welsh referee who came out in 2007]. Evans then made an apology of sorts on behalf of Thomas: "For those ppl [people] who got the wrong end of the stick... it was from our savage training day yesterday, sorry about my friend fellow ppl."

In his autobiography, Half Time, Mr Owens revealed that he had tried to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality when he was a young man. He has since said he has experienced no discrimination during his time as a rugby referee.

Yesterday, he told The Independent that he knew both players well and could see "nothing malicious" in what Thomas had written. However, he said he would call him "to find out what he was on about".

"It's probably just tongue-in-cheek, something they said without thinking about it," he said. "If it had been other players that I didn't know so well then maybe I might think, 'Hang on a minute', but with those two there's definitely no issues."

Thomas's comments come at a time when homophobia in British sport is under intense scrutiny. Only this week, the FA provoked anger by delaying the screening of a film designed to highlight and discourage homophobic chanting and insults by football supporters.

In December, the former Welsh captain Gareth Thomas revealed he was gay in a newspaper interview. His agent said he did not wish to comment on the incident because he felt it had merely been "good-natured banter" between the two players.

The posts were deleted from Twitter shortly after The Independent contacted the Welsh Rugby Union last night. In a statement, Jonathan Thomas said: "Nigel is a great friend of mine and there is absolutely no way I would say anything to him or about him publicly – or indeed privately – which I thought he would find personally offensive. There is no malicious intent in this message whatsoever. This was some childish banter between friends and I did not think for a moment that there may be other people out there reading it and/or taking it in the wrong way.

"I made a very silly comment to something else that was written, but nevertheless, I would like to apologise to anyone who is or was offended by it. I have spoken to Nigel this afternoon and, as I knew at the time of writing, he is not offended and he remains a very good friend. I have now removed the offending comment and will be much more conscious of distinguishing between private jokes and what can be said in a public forum in future."

Gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: "Homophobic tweets are just as unacceptable as similar outbursts on blogs and message boards. This is not what we would expect from players such as Jonathan Thomas. These remarks are particularly disappointing as they come just weeks after Jonathan's former international team-mate Gareth Thomas came out to such public acclaim and admiration.

"Many of us expected and hoped that this was a turning point and that Welsh rugby could kiss goodbye to homophobia. Sadly, Jonathan's proved us wrong."