Thomas the exile carries the hopes of a nation

NEW FACES FOR '96: The latest product from the Welsh outside-half factory can realise the dreams, says Steve Bale
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The Independent Online
When Phil Bennett retired, Wales spent years looking for the new Phil Bennett and eventually found him in Jonathan Davies. Then Davies went to rugby league and Wales spent years looking for the new Jonathan. They may at last have found him in Arwel Thomas.

Such hope is, however, a grievous burden to impose on a young outside- half only just 21. It did nothing for Gregor Townsend when he was talked of as a latter-day JD - and he was a Scot, for goodness sake - and though Thomas has made the Welsh squad for the first time he is not allowing himself to be carried away.

For now his realistic ambition to make the Wales bench this season and maybe make the final step next season. This would accord perfectly with the projection of his coach at Bristol, the New Zealander Brian Hanlon. "There's no doubt Arwel has all the attributes to go all the way but everyone involved has to be very careful not to rush him," Hanlon said.

That Thomas should be under Hanlon's wing in the West Country reflects a desire to better himself at odds with the familiar introspection which has done so much to damage Welsh rugby during its years of decline. Thomas is a native of Trebanos, the Swansea Valley village also responsible for Robert Jones, who should still be Wales's scrum-half, and Greg Thomas, an England fast bowler.

He made an impact on the Welsh scene with Neath last season, a commanding performance against Swansea earning him attention and acclaim. Already a Welsh Youth international, he went on to represent Wales Under-21 but could not sustain his early progress and was seldom selected for Neath once he had made his decision to join Bristol.

"In general the Courage league is of a higher standard than the Heineken League with harder games week-in week-out and in the long run it's bound to pay off," he said. "It's definitely doing me good and giving me a different outlook to be out of Wales. I'm very confident it will pay off for me in the end."

In fact Thomas has set a trend, with other Welshmen - Jones and Phil Davies for Harlequins and Gareth Llewellyn for Wasps, Robert Howley for Saracens, to name four prominent examples - having registered to play for English clubs. Not only is the rugby better, so is the money.

For now, though, Thomas is doing a two-year Higher National Certificate course in leisure management at Filton Technical College; Bristol's, and therefore Thomas's, move to full professionalism will come as soon as the Rugby Football Union's moratorium ends at the end of the season.

Meanwhile he will do his best to live up to the Jonathan Davies tag. "However much of a burden it may be, it's also a compliment," Thomas said. "You never can tell: people who have seen me once or twice might say I'm the next Jonathan Davies - which encourages others to come along and see me and if it doesn't go so well they're not impressed and wonder what the fuss was about."

These are the slings and arrows from which Hanlon would like to protect him. So here goes: "He is a beautiful punter of the ball. His goal-kicking has been good for Bristol - but that's in front of 7,000 not 50,000. He has quick hands, left and right. He tackles extremely well. He is very durable. He is a lovely, balanced runner.

"English club rugby is good for him but he needs to have more games at senior level to develop the vision of reading the game. He would hate me to say this but he is still a season away from being the Wales fly- half." Actually, he would wholeheartedly agree.