He's the captain of Wales and lives and plays in France's rugby heartland but, Gareth Thomas tells Paul Newman, he always knows which side he is on
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The warming sun is just starting to break through the mist of a crisp winter's morning at the Complexe Sportif des Sept Deniers. The players of Stade Toulousain have been taken through their physical exercises, the backs and forwards have trained in separate groups and now it is time to get serious.

Once a week the Rouge et Noir end the day's training with a 15-a-side match featuring all the senior players. The tackles are on the polite side of full-blooded and the coaches frequently stop play to make a point, but there is no disguising the competitive edge.

Towards the end of the match a blur of hands delivers the ball down the threequarter line and a try for les noirs seems inevitable until a wonderful flying tackle by Gareth Thomas, playing at outside-centre for les rouges, halts their progress. The captain of Wales has hardly got back on to his feet, however, before the ball is won back and switched across the pitch and into the hands of Frederic Michalak, clearly keen to make his mark on his return after a lengthy absence through injury. In the blink of an eye the greatest young talent in French rugby dummies to his left, turns 180 degrees and kicks a perfectly executed dropped goal.

The gaggle of watching supporters murmur their approval. At Toulouse, where 21 of the current first-team squad of 30 are full internationals, club and fans demand nothing but the best.

If playing with some of the world's leading players at club level is the best way of honing your talents for the international game, Wales will be in for a treat during the Six Nations Championship. Thomas, who has 80 Wales caps and is his country's leading try scorer, is in exalted company: nine Stadistes helped France to the Grand Slam last year, while Toulouse failed to hold on to their European title only after a calamitous late mistake by Clement Poitrenaud let in Rob Howley for Wasps' winning try in the final at Twickenham. This season they have qualified impressively for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and are riding high in the French championship.

When the kings of French rugby's south-west stronghold came calling last summer, 30-year-old Thomas must have felt like Michael Owen when Real Madrid made their move. It is not just their history (champions of France 16 times) and recent successes (European champions in 1996 and 2003) that make Stade one of the great names in world rugby. The club are hugely successful off the

field: according to Midi-Olympique, the country's national rugby newspaper, Toulouse have a budget of Û15 million (close to pounds 11m), almost 50 per cent more than their nearest rivals. A plinth outside the stadium lists, remarkably, 180 commercial "partners".

Unlike most of their municipally-supported rivals, Toulouse own their home. The refurbished Stade Ernest Wallon has a capacity of 19,200 and three full-sized training pitches, including the only synthetic rugby surface in the country outside the national team's headquarters (this being France, it is probably also one of the only training pitches in the world where there is a sign banning smoking). The medical and support facilities are second to none, while business is brisk at the club's two shops (one at the ground and the other in the city centre). The stadium also houses a swish restaurant, its walls adorned with photographs of former Stade heroes like Walter Spanghero, Jean-Claude Skrela and Jean- Pierre Rives.

Playing in such an environment might turn the heads of some players, but, over lunch, Thomas makes it clear that he and his fellow cross-Channel exiles, Stephen Jones at Clermont Auvergne and Gareth Llewellyn at Narbonne, will have their feet firmly on the ground when they rejoin their countrymen for the Six Nations. They may be serving pissaladiere a l'anchois et parmesan followed by foie de veau en croute upstairs in the brasserie, but down in the players' canteen Thomas is happy to load his paper plate with pasta and cheese before sitting down alongside Trevor Brennan, Stade's Irish international forward, who has become a firm friend. Red wine is on the table, but Thomas chooses the Diet Coke.

"I hope the fact that we're playing over here will be of benefit to our own game and therefore to Wales," Thomas said. "But I don't go back home to say: `I play for Toulouse so you should do things my way.' It can't work like that. We go back to play for Wales and we play how the coach wants us to play. We have to adjust. Maybe in a game there will be a spur- of-the-moment thing we can bring that we've learned out here, but first and foremost we go back and we play on their terms.

"We also train differently here. We do almost everything with a ball in our hands. Regardless of how strong you are or how much work you do on the gym or on the track, it's what you do with the ball that counts in the end. What I have to do is balance Toulouse's needs with those of Wales. I still do the physical exercises that the Welsh Rugby Union send me, so that when I go back I'm in peak condition for Wales. They want different things. Toulouse and Wales have got different ideas about rugby, so it's up to me to keep both parties happy." The signs are that Thomas is succeeding, despite the initial surprise in some quarters in September when he was named captain of Wales in succession to Colin Charvis. A penchant for tattoos and a cv which included incurring the wrath of World Cup officialdom in 1999 when he revealed a t-shirt proclaiming the innocence of Charvis, who had been banned for throwing a punch, were not everyone's idea of captaincy credentials, despite Thomas having made a success of the job with Bridgend and the Celtic Warriors.

Several players were interviewed for the captaincy and it no doubt helped that Thomas has become the first name on the teamsheet for Mike Ruddock, who succeeded Steve Hansen as national coach last year. Under Graham Henry, Hansen's predecessor, Thomas seemed to be dropped as often as he was selected.

If there was promise in Thomas's first game in permanent charge (he led his country in a World Cup warm-up game against Ireland two years ago), a 38-36 defeat by South Africa, better was to follow. After a routine 66-7 win over Romania, Wales revived memories of their remarkable 2003 World Cup display against the All Blacks, going down 26-25 in a thriller. Thomas subsequently missed the 98-0 drubbing of Japan.

The only major question mark over Thomas's decision-making came towards the end against New Zealand. Awarded a penalty at 26-22 down and with the stadium clock showing three minutes left, Thomas decided to go for goal rather than kick for the corner. Gavin Henson duly delivered the three points, but Wales were unable to score again. After the match, debate raged over whether the clock included stoppage time and whether the captain had made the right decision.

Thomas is adamant. "I would do exactly the same thing today, even knowing exactly how much time was left," he said. "There was three minutes left and so much can happen in the space of three minutes. At that stage we were so much on top that we could easily have got down their end and scored again. The coaches have looked at the video and there's a moment when one of the All Blacks kicks the ball into the back of one of his own players. If they had been penalised and we'd scored the points, people could have been saying to me: `You made the right decision'." While November's performances gave cause for optimism, Thomas remains cautious. "So many times in the past we've done well in the autumn internationals but then under-achieved in the Six Nations," he said. "When outside expectations weigh on us, I really don't think we play to our potential.

"I don't want to be a `nearly man' any more. Wales have been at that point for so long now. Until we stop being happy with being nearly men then that's all we'll ever be. It seems to me that sometimes when we push the big teams close then that's good enough for some people. The trouble is that rubs off on the team. They think they've achieved. Because we've under-achieved for some years that's become the norm. Don't get me wrong, I do believe we got somewhere against New Zealand and South Africa in the autumn. We did show character. But I desperately want to win and so do the team." Sir Clive Woodward was among those impressed by Thomas's leadership. The Lions coach spent a week with the Welsh and described Thomas as a leading contender for the captaincy in New Zealand this summer. While flattered, Thomas makes it clear that no experience in a Lions shirt would ever compare with national duty.

"For me there is nothing more that I could ever achieve than to play for and captain my country," he said. "I've done it 80 times now and I still find it an indescribable experience. Playing for Wales has been the ultimate for me and it always will be. I'm still as proud to play for Wales as I was for the very first time." One noticeable change is that the Welsh are playing with a smile on their faces, though Thomas, a naturally outgoing character, plays down his influence. "It's not a matter of what I want," he said. "As a team that's how we want to play. We've played under so much pressure for so long and sometimes it really gets to you. The pressure can stop you from playing rugby. When you go out on the pitch you can almost feel your blood boiling inside you.

"But we're going out there playing for our country, which is something that every player would love to do, and we've got thousands of people supporting us. We should be enjoying it. People have criticised me for smiling on a rugby pitch, but why? It's a game we love to play and a game people love watching."

After playing for Pencoed, Bridgend and Cardiff, Thomas signed up for the Celtic Warriors - effectively a merger of Bridgend and Pontypridd - when the Welsh Rugby Union rebuilt its club structure around five regional teams two years ago. Last summer, however, Leighton Samuel, the Warriors' benefactor, withdrew his support and the WRU allowed the club to v

fold. Thomas departed after an unseemly row over whether Toulouse, having originally agreed to pay Samuel pounds 200,000, should pay a transfer fee to the WRU. It left a sour taste, particularly after the Warriors had earned a place in this season's Heineken Cup.

"When I realised that I had the opportunity to come here my mind was made up immediately because I don't think any club in the world is bigger than this," Thomas said. "But the decision was made easier for me by the demise of the Warriors. The decision to close them down made me more determined to leave Wales. I wasn't happy about it. I just wanted to get out of Wales.

"Bridgend is my home town. In letting the Warriors go they've taken away a great production line of players for Wales. Just look at the players who have come from both Pontypridd and Bridgend. Over the last few years I think the majority of the really big players for Wales have come from there. When I go back to Wales I always drive past the club and have a look. There are still the Celtic Warriors signs up and I always pause to have a think about it. What's particularly sad is that I believe they were the best region in Wales and would have been a real force in Europe this year."

Instead, Thomas is pursuing European glory with Toulouse. A try last month in a 53-36 win over Llanelli Scarlets, in front of a crowd of 16,900, secured a home draw against Northampton in the quarter-finals. Thomas has been playing mainly on the wing, where he won many of his caps. He has also played at centre for Wales, who now usually play him at full back. Thomas enjoys the variety - "If I played the same position every week I think it would get rather monotonous" - and it was his versatility that caught the eye of Guy Noves, Stade's head coach.

"We'd been watching Gareth for years," Noves said. "He can play at full- back, on the wing or in the centre. He does well in all those positions, though I think he's at his best on the wing or in the centre. We play a style of rugby where we want players to be comfortable everywhere on the pitch and I think that suits Gareth. Freedom of play has to be based above all on the player's intelligence. If you have an intelligent player who understands the game, who watches what's going on around him, then it's much more enjoyable for them to play with some freedom than it is to play like a robot."

Thomas agrees. "If you've got the opportunity to do something here, you don't think twice about it, you just do it. In Wales it was a much more structured game. Everything was based around the line-out, the scrum or whatever. Here it's that much more open. Sometimes at the start I found it tough to adapt and my mind went on to automatic pilot. I just had to get into their way of playing."

If Welsh coaches, including Ruddock, put a greater emphasis on set-pieces, Thomas does not see that as a problem. "With Wales things are a little bit more regimented, but it's just a question of getting used to it again," he said. "And it's not as though we don't pay any attention to set-pieces here. It's a similar game the world over."

For a player who was working as a postman when he won his first cap in 1995 - Thomas remembers the days when he started work at 4.30 on a Saturday morning and played for Bridgend in the afternoon - the pleasures and privileges of life as a professional remain special, particularly at a club and city like Toulouse where the passion for rugby is matched only by the warmth of the sun.

"I love my country and I miss Wales terribly, but the way of life here is superb," he said. "Even in the middle of winter we're sometimes able to sit outside and have lunch. My wife is working in Trevor Brennan's bar and she's very happy here as well. We're both having French lessons, though the language has never been a problem.

"You can't compare the lifestyle here with back home, but that's not the reason I'm here. It's the rugby that brought me over and the set-up at Toulouse makes what I was used to in Wales seem like a different planet. When I first arrived I said to some of the Toulouse players who've only ever played here that I'd like to take them to Wales and England to show them how lucky they are."

That feeling was reinforced in Stade's home game against Biarritz. "Cedric Heymans had the last kick of the game on the halfway line to win the match," Thomas recalled. "The atmosphere was amazing. He slotted it over and it was just party time. You can win by 50 points sometimes but when you win by one point with the last kick of the game that's extra special. It was one of those moments. After the match the crowd went ballistic and all the players were on the field. I just remember thinking to myself: `This is superb. This is nothing like I've ever experienced in club rugby.' It was a moment I'll never forget."