Thomas the born leader of Wales by a smile

The champions' charismatic captain is a winning mix of professional and player
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The Independent Online

Had the Celtic Warriors still been in existence, Gareth Thomas would have been in mothballs in the build-up to the opening of Wales's defence of the Six Nations against England at Twickenham on Saturday. When it comes to resting players before an international, the Welsh regions play ball, but the WRU have no clout with clubs outside the Principality.

Thomas flew back to Tou-louse on Thursday to prepare for a French championship match in Pau and he was not complaining, although Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, was hoping that his captain would be confined to the bench. Wales have enough injury problems without worrying about Thomas, who is already playing a high-risk game. He has a cartilage tear in his right knee.

With the joint heavily strapped, Thomas played in the Heineken Cup at Llanelli last week. "The strapping keeps my knee in place but it's so tight I can't run properly. I couldn't face England like that, so the strapping will have to come off. They've got a new device which apparently they use on racehorses. I'll carry on. If the knee goes, it goes. C'est la vie."

From the wreckage of the Warriors Thomas has emerged triumphant in Toulouse, who are the Heineken Cup champions, and where he and the former Ireland flanker Trevor Brennan have been known to enjoy the odd aperitif. "I have a commitment to the club as well as to Wales," he said. "I knew the risks when I signed and I'm happy with the arrange-ment. I love the club and I love the city. They call the squad "the family" and I've been welcomed into it. There are stars all over the place but everybody's level-headed. Every club wants to win in Toulouse, so the family sticks together."

Despite his success, the demise of the Celtic Warriors a couple of years ago has left a scar. "I'm still loyal to my roots and whenever I go back to Wales I pop in to my local rugby club, Pencoed. What happened to the Celtic Warriors still rips me inside. We had the makings of a great team, and the fact that there is no longer top-flight rugby in Bridgend and Pontypridd is a disgrace." Indeed. The Welsh Rugby Union should think of reforming the Warriors and put Cardiff to sleep instead.

According to Ruddock, Thomas's captaincy is "getting better and better". "I think the responsibility of leading Wales and the Lions has changed me big time as a player," Thomas, who is universally addressed as "Alfie", said. "But it hasn't changed my approach. I'm still of the old school. Whatever you're doing it's important to have a laugh. It's one of the reasons why we did so well last season. The players responded to the environment. Whether they were winning their first cap or their 100th the players were encouraged to relax and be themselves. I will carry on doing it my way. I don't want anybody to feel intimidated. I don't play this game purely because it's professional. Take away the craic and your brain will fester."

When Steve Hansen succeeded Graham Henry as Wales coach he was not amused by Thomas's approach. They had a heart-to-heart. "I wanted him to stand up and be a leader," Hansen said. "Alfie wanted to play the total clown. I told him if he didn't change he was no good to me. He was capable of more." Alfie was dropped.

"I took a long hard look at myself," Thomas said. "It's no secret that Steve Hansen saved my career. It was on a serious downward spiral. I was doing a lot of things a professional shouldn't."

Thomas reinvented himself. After joining Toulouse in 2004 he was made captain of Wales, who responded by coming within a couple of points of beating the All Blacks. A few months later they beat England in Cardiff for the first time in 12 years, and went on to take their first Grand Slam since 1978.

Thomas missed the last two matches after breaking a thumb during the extraordinary victory over France, but helped Toulouse win the Heineken Cup and completed his personal renaissance by captaining the Lions in two Tests in New Zealand, for whom Hansen was the forwards coach. Thomas did not swap jerseys with his opposite number - he gave it to Hansen.

On Saturday Thomas, a former postman who is bemused by his unforgettable 2005, will probably swap his No 15 jersey with Josh Lewsey. "One of the things the Lions tour taught me is not to judge people too quickly. Everything I'd seen or heard about Matt Dawson made me totally despise him, but I tell you this, if your backs are to the wall he's the kind of guy I'd want in my team. He's a dog not a show pony. I changed my view completely. I discovered that Matt and others like Josh Lewsey and Martin Corry are top blokes."

Thomas, who has 35 Test tries, which puts him into the top 10 on the all-time list, has been made aware that one of his first tasks is to ensure his players don't arrive at Twickenham on cloud nine. "It's very strange. Everybody in Wales is still living on the Grand Slam, and some of the players are still moaning to me that they can't walk down the street without getting mobbed.

"I don't want to spoil people's fun, but it's important the team move on. It's impossible to completely shut out the Slam, but what I'll tell the players is, if we can make a nation so happy, imagine the effect if we won two." Thomas smiled his toothless grin.

The Glory Year: Wales' romp to the Grand Slam

WALES 11 ENGLAND 9: Gavin Henson's famous penalty clinched it, Shane Williams' dazzling try after 10 minutes set the tone.

ITALY 8 WALES 38: Six-try romp for first away win since 2001.

FRANCE 18 WALES 24: Heroic: 15-6 down at half-time, two tries for Martyn Williams and a 30-minute re-enactment of Rorke's Drift.

SCOTLAND 22 WALES 46: Three tries in first 15 minutes and on to the Irish showdown.

WALES 32 IRELAND 20: Gethin Jenkins' charge-down try, 16-6 at half-time. Let the singing begin.

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