Thomas plays the pretender

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The Independent Online
Bristol 22

Gloucester 16

THE hullaballoo surrounding the probable return to rugby union of Jonathan Davies has tended to drown out the claims of young pretenders to the Welsh fly-half throne. But perhaps the Welsh selectors need not look as far as Warrington for their next No 10; they could do a lot worse than pop across the Severn Bridge to cast an eye over Bristol's new stand- off, Arwel Thomas.

The fresh-faced 20-year-old former Neath player looks about 13. His vital statistics of 5ft 6in and 10st 8lb are unlikely to strike terror into the sturdy tree trunks who masquerade as League One open-side flankers these days. But appearances can be deceptive; Thomas can kick like a mule and run like a racehorse.

At the start of his first league game for Bristol, the Wales Under-21 fly half seemed nervous. Indeed, indirectly he caused Martin Kimber's try in the 20th minute. Thomas lost the ball in a maul and the Gloucester fly-half pinned his ears back and sprinted in under the posts from halfway.

Thomas did not, however, let this affect his game. He was soon putting in massive kicks to touch and deft side-steps. He was looking for all the world like the man who was in the stands at the Memorial Ground to compile a report on him for BBC Wales, Phil Bennett.

Echoes of the former British Lions captain grew stronger in the 22nd minute. From a set scrum on the Gloucester 22, Thomas executed an effortless double dummy scissors before bursting through the gap, drawing the opposition full-back and handing on to Paul Hull who surfed in from 10 yards like a happy holidaymaker at Bondai Beach. This was just one of many moments - both in attack and defence when the Bristol captain underlined why he has become the Matthew Le Tissier of rugby: a player loved by fans but spurned by selectors.

Thomas sealed his display and no doubt guaranteed many headlines about "fairy-tale starts and dream debuts" with an imperious drop goal under heavy pressure four minutes from the end.

Otherwise this was a poor advertisement for the brave new world of professional rugby. A referee whose whistle was as loud and distracting as his yellow jersey certainly did not help proceedings flow freely, and West Country derbies always offer more thuds than thrills.

But any amount of passion could not mask a paucity of skill. Surely games in late October should not already have the look of relegation dogfights. Thomas and Hull were the sole points of light amid the encircling gloom.

Bristol: P Hull (capt); K Maggs, J Keyter, M Denney, D Bennett; A Thomas, K Bracken; A Sharp, M Regan, K Fullman, M Fountaine, G Archer, B Armstrong, M Corry, E Rollitt.

Gloucester: T Smith; M Nicholson, D Caskie, P Holford, L Osborne; M Kimber, B Fenley; T Windo, J Hawker, A Martin, D Sims (capt), R West, P Glanville, R Fidler, I Smith.

Referee: C Rees (London).