Thomas refuses to indulge in excuses before champions' Twickenham test

The Wales captain dismisses talk of an imminent fall from grace following Grand Slam glory. James Corrigan reports
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The Independent Online

Recognised throughout rugby as one of the most authentic performers and most genuine characters in the game, it is more than slightly insulting that Gareth Thomas should find himself having to lead the fight for credibility this weekend.

The Welsh captain will march his Grand Slammers out at Twickenham tomorrow knowing that they are 80 minutes and one thumping away from being written off as one-season wonders, aware that the word "fluke" will follow them back over the bridge and everywhere else thereafter. But Thomas does not worry. In fact, he could not care less.

"Listen, it doesn't matter what the pundits say, what the press say or even what some fans might be saying," said the 31-year-old as he prepared to become Wales' second-most capped player, with 87.

"You can ask any player and he will tell you that it's only the respect of his fellow professional that matters. And we know that our opponents respect us and what we did last year."

Ah, what Wales did last year; when fantasy became reality, when hymns came to life and when a whole nation was transported back to the glorious Seventies months before any BBC scriptwriter had nicked the idea.

If there is any bitter inflection in Thomas' rich Bridgend twang then it is that 2005 cannot be enjoyed for simply what it was.

"It was a joyous few months all right," said the full-back they call "Alfie". "So why does it now seem to have been turned into something of a negative, as something that has supposedly applied heaps of pressure on us? Sure we want to build on it and everything but we'll always have our memories of it regardless. This is another tournament in another year and we should not have to be justifying our performance in the last."

Thomas has a point, although if it makes it sound like he is preparing himself for the worst then that is not what he meant. Unlike almost everyone else in the Principality he is refusing to use an injury list that has denied Mike Ruddock some of his key personnel as some sort of pre-walloping anaesthetic. "It seems to me that everyone is already looking for excuses for us," he said.

"What's the point of that before we've even played? So what if we've got some boys out - we've got some new ones in, very capable ones, and that in itself can be viewed as a positive, what with the added enthusiasm they bring and all the new ideas. We've just got to get on with it and we have been, I can assure you. The camp is very, very upbeat."

They are also "very, very together", just as they were in the aftermath of last year's Grand Slam but also, more tellingly, in the moments of unit-splitting adversity that inevitably follows such highs.

"I do believe our bond is our strong point," said Thomas, who also tasted glory with his club side, Toulouse, in last year's Heineken Cup.

"Take last summer, when the Welsh boys helped keep the Lions tour together. Andy Robinson [the England coach and one of Sir Clive Woodward's assistants in New Zealand] did say that he has taken a lot from the way the Welsh handled ourselves and has been trying to put it into the England set-up.

"That is a massive compliment, but then it's true: when we are against the wall, that's when we show our character. We won't go behind each other's backs. No one is bigger than the game."

That was an obvious reference to "Gavingate", when Henson of that name launched his warts-and-all autobiography (alas, the warts were not on his smoothly sun-tanned exterior) and the entire house of congratulations cards threatened to fall around them. Insiders reveal that Thomas was quick to act as trouble-shooter, keeping it all behind closed doors and stopping a messy affair from ending in divorce.

"I think our decision to get Gav and hold a meeting as a squad shows the great strength of our squad," Thomas recalled. "We decided not to go back to Gav about what he'd said via the press - we felt we were stronger together and could sort it out together. The decision to do this face-to-face proved to me that no one person can close or break us."

Fifteen men in white just might, though, as Thomas is not nearly ready to concede, although he declines from doing so without the acerbity Welshmen usually reserve for their dear neighbours.

"It's Wales and England and we haven't won there since 1988 and all that and there'll be the usual expectation at home because of it," he said. "But it's funny; more than ever since the Lions tour, it's really not like that for us as professionals.

"You'd never have thought it, but the English were the boys we bonded with more than any other Down Under. I now get on well with Martin Corry, particularly, and think he's done a hell of a job as English captain. We've being texting and calling each other and are good mates.

"And surely that's what's great about rugby. We'll spend 80 minutes trying to smash the living daylights out of each other and then we'll have a few beers afterwards whatever the result."

They might even raise a glass to the Wales of 2005. It is about time someone remembered to.