Revival of the Arwel dodge

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Arwel Thomas is not going to Canada with the Wales development squad this summer. Instead he is going to China with a club called the Penguins. When you are no longer the flavour of the month, or even the millennium, they put you on a slow boat to Shanghai with a flightless bird.

The rise and fall of a player still considered by many in the Principality to be the most naturally gifted of the modern generation of stand-offs left him battered and confused. "I was on the slide," he said. "It destroys your confidence and you stop believing in yourself. I wasn't enjoying it and I wasn't playing at all well. I was really down in the dumps."

That was several months ago. Since then, he and Swan-sea have turned things around and on Saturday have a chance of redemption in front of 50,000 in the Welsh Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff against Llanelli and Stephen Jones, the man who has further relegated Thomas in the pecking order.

An abiding memory of Thomas is not his audacious running of a penalty from in front of the England posts at Twickenham, which resulted in a try against a bemused defence, but of his first appearance against Ireland at Lansdowne Road four years ago. He took a high ball and was trampled on by half of Garryowen. When he emerged he looked like Bambi on ice.

"I took a kick to the head," he recalls, "and I was out on my feet. I didn't know where I was or what I was doing." Kevin Bowring, the then Wales coach and a member of the Arwel fan club, should have pulled him out to save him from further punishment. Somehow Thomas correctly identified the number of fingers held up by the physio and played on, with predictable consequences. He seems to have been taking the knocks ever since.

Graham Henry is clearly not a member of the aforementioned club. When he succeeded Bowring a couple of years ago, he had no hesitation in regarding Neil Jenkins, whom Bowring had played at full-back, as the number one pivot, a player in the mould of the All Blacks point-scoring machine, Grant Fox.

Arwel, a gambler, a master of the unorthodox and, for a short time, the natural heir to the No 10 jersey worn by ball players and artists like Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies, was not so much out in the cold as sleeping with the penguins.

"We didn't have a heart to heart or anything like that," Thomas said. "Henry simply told me that he saw weaknesses in my defence and that I wasn't very effective at leading the ship. He had his plans and his players and that is part and parcel of professional sport. I still thought I'd be there or thereabouts for the World Cup squad. Missing that, particularly in Wales, was the worst part. Playing for Wales was the thing that had kept me going. That was it. Everyone kept asking me how I felt. I told them, 'Don't worry about it. Forget it'."

Thomas, who learnt his rugby at Neath College and played for Neath and Bristol before joining Swansea four seasons ago, went from artful dodger to fall guy in the space of a side-step. His illustrious predecessors, like the quarterback in American football, expected protection from the forwards and usually got it. Tackling was for the artisans.

"I thought about what Henry had said but the thing is because I'm small I'm an obvious target. With people determined to run at me I had to do more tackling, which means I probably missed more. You have to improve your mental attitude, get your head around it but the urge just wasn't there. My game wasn't very convincing, I didn't feel right and I didn't have a case. I thought it had all gone. My view was that it was not such a big deal."

A couple of things then happened to the baby-faced destroyer. First his wife Clare gave birth to a daughter, Nia. "It's a big part of my life. It means more responsibility and I have to plan my time around her." And Phil Richards, Swansea's fitness coach, introduced the squad to a series of cassettes, containing comments from sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and Pele, which are designed to give the players something to think about.

"I have been listening to Ali talking about taking risks and that you won't get anywhere if you don't," Thomas said. "You take bits out of it and use it in your training schedule. Something seemed to gel. I think it's helped to dig us out of a hole. Certainly, over the last three months we've been performing a lot better and all of a sudden my belief is back. I haven't spoken to anyone about it, I'm not that type of person. I just believe I can do it again. You live and learn."

Swansea are believed to be signing Cerith Rees, the talented young stand-off from Neath; then there's Ceri Sweeney of Pontypridd and, of course, Llanelli's Jones, the current incumbent at No 10. "When you get the chance, you have to take it," Thomas said. "Stephen Jones took it and I feel confident enough to push my case. Swansea have qualified for Europe and we are in the cup final. What looked like being a very poor season for both the club and myself could turn out to be pretty good. I'm concentrating on doing the basics well and making the right decisions."

So he appears to be back on the bridge of the ship. What about his defence? "I no longer think 'Oh no, here they come again'. I'm not saying I'm the best defender in the world but I think I can hold my own."

The 25-year-old Thomas, at 5ft 8in and less than 12st, is no Rocky. "I think about putting a bit of weight on but I say that every year and nothing happens. I'm back to my normal way of life, my normal way of playing. I'll still use my imagination. Whether it comes off or not is another matter. Sometimes when it doesn't it's my downfall. I feel quite chirpy. You wouldn't have heard me talk like this three months ago."