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The switch, the hits, the pressure

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George Riley George Riley | 10:32 UK time, Wednesday, 14 April 2010

When Gareth Thomas hobbled off dazed, battered and bruised barely 30 minutes into his rugby league career, some cynics deemed it an early sign that the Lions legend wouldn't be able to hack it.

A month later, I'm locked in a fascinating chat with Wales' most capped rugby union international, barely able to get a word in edgeways as he waxes lyrical about the addictive pull of league.

The 35-year-old ran in his first Super League try in Crusaders' terrific weekend win at Wakefield. Reason enough, I thought, to give the man they call 'Alfie' a bell, now the dust has settled on a blood and thunder first month in the game.

Gareth Thomas, Celtic Crusaders
Thomas made his league debut against Catalan Dragons after 100 international union appearances for Wales, and three for the Lions

"The rugby league world is absolutely great, it's going really well for me," he told me, before talking about that famous first try in Crusaders colours. I sensed this breakthrough would be significant for Thomas, but when a man who has played 100 times for his country at union rates a relatively run-of-the-mill league try as a career highlight then it's clear it means a lot more.

"Scoring my first try was, for me, a massive moment of acceptance," he said. "Playing on the wing, there is pressure to score your first try. It is like a football club signing a new striker - there is pressure on him to score his first goal.

"It was one of my most memorable moments, and the special memory for me was all my team-mates piling on instantly so I couldn't even celebrate! It was awesome.

"To get that kind of respect from the players here in such a short space of time was really special for me. It was as though I had finally become a rugby league player. Seeing my name on the Wakefield scoreboard was the moment I felt I was actually part of this team and contributing something."

Not only was this a landmark moment for Thomas, and arguably for British sport, too, but it meant his arduous league baptism could be archived to the memory banks.

"You got smacked on your debut, didn't you?" I suggested, harking back to his short-lived bow against the raw French force of Catalans Dragons. Thomas laughed, before recalling the smashing he took before being helped off the field in a heap.

"I sat down with our assistant coach Iestyn Harris after that game and it was obvious where I'd gone wrong," he said. "I got whacked and beat up pretty badly. During the game, I thought to myself 'woah these are massive hits', but watching the game back it was clear I was just running really wrong. I was angle-running like a union player and not like a league player. We fixed that over one video session.

"I'm still doing little things wrong but that's because my instincts are still those of a union player. That will change."

So a month into the game, the big question: How does rugby league compare to union? We've seen Lee Smith and Chev Walker return from union after failing to make an impact, so how has Thomas found the adjustment the other way?

"The hits are without a doubt much bigger in league than union, it's a big difference," he said. "Players can line you up more and it is just pure, brute force in the tackle without worrying too much about the technique. It makes for much bigger hits but it also makes for more of a game, if I'm honest.

"There are a lot more deception plays going on, a lot more footwork than union, and a lot more tough-guy ball carriers. When you get a good mixture of all three, it makes for a really good game of rugby league."

Thomas clearly gets it, even after just two starts, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Even before that ill-fated debut, his coach, Brian Noble, told me Thomas would be a star. 'Nobby' called me after training one day raving about what he'd seen from his new winger. But Thomas is under no illusions how much he has to learn as he settles into his 18-month contract in the 13-man game.

"I never realised how much goes on that you don't actually see," he said. "I thought it must be an easy game to play, but now I know as an outsider you wouldn't have a clue about some of the things that go on, and that was a big wake-up call for me when I came here."

But what does Thomas really want to get out of this game? What goals does he have in this foray into league?

"A sportsman without ambition is, in my opinion, not a sportsman," he said with trademark resolve. "I always have huge ambition. Immediately I want to become a Crusaders regular and be a success here. The squad is talented, the coaches are amazing, and that is the perfect recipe for success.

"My ultimate ambition is to be part of a successful rugby league team in north Wales and I'd love the chance to play international league for Wales. Being a dual-code international is never something I could turn down. It would be brilliant."

My understanding is that Thomas may not be the last Welsh international to switch codes this year. Andy Powell - he of boozy late-night golf buggy fame - is my tip to join his former international team-mate at Crusaders, although talk of a switch for Gavin Henson is premature. Contact has been made between Henson's advisers and Crusaders, but Mr Charlotte Church (just engaged!) is in no rush to quit union just yet. Powell, though appears far more likely, and Thomas is keen to team up again and share this new challenge with his good pal.

"I know Powelly really well as a person and player and he will fit right into this squad," he reckons. "He's a fun guy with a top work ethic. He is big, fast, fit and has great feet, so he will take to this game brilliantly.

"I reckon it will take him a couple of weeks to adjust and then he will be a huge success. Age is on his side and I think, if and when he does come over to league, it could be the start of a journey that sees him end up playing international rugby league".

If Powell is tempted, he won't be short of advice from Thomas. The bigger picture, too, is that the Rugby Football League's gamble on giving this Welsh side a licence is finally starting to look a decent call.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Another good blog George.

    Thomas surely won't have too much difficulty getting in to the Wales RL side at the end of the year.

  • Comment number 2.

    Brilliant news that he is liking it, sensible expansion is the way forward... where next?

  • Comment number 3.

    Excellent blog George. Gareth Thomas seems to be one of those characters that are a coaches dream - instantly likeable, hard-working and very enthusiastic. It's just a shame he came into the game so late in his career. Still I hope he does really well, and realises his dream of a Wales call-up.

    I hope the Crusaders manage to convert their early success on the pitch, and large crowds in Wrexham, into a sustainable venture. That means gradually getting more Welsh players into the 17 over the next few seasons, and - with the help of the Scorpions - creating a career pathway for young Welsh lads who take up the game.

  • Comment number 4.

    The sad reality is for our game at the moment, is that someone like Thomas who has played a few league games and scored one try as a winger could quite easily slot into the Wales international jersey, whereas young hopefuls like Tom Briscoe at Hull FC who have been training since their pre-teens will struggle to get into the England shirt in the near future.

    Hopefully Thomas' long term legacy is part of a professional, self-sustainable Welsh rugby league side being part of Super League for decades to come, to make the Wales side a competitive force in international rugby league, and with the RFL-endorsed developments in France and Ireland, create a scene for the sport outside of the M62 urban belt.

    The only question is: We've built it, but will they (the crowds) come?

    Thomas is a piece of the much larger jigsaw in the expansion of rugby league, and if other rugby union players are capable of playing the sport, then they should also be accepted with open arms. We need young Welsh hopefuls coming through the academies of the Crusaders and the Scorpions in the south, and perhaps the conversion of high-profile names will encourage this.

  • Comment number 5.

    Powell would be a great buy for Crusaders and Rugby League! Having seen him play for Wales it could be argued he is a Rugby League playing Rugby Union - personally for the game to grow and have more press recognition and credibility we need an international game - I do prefere League to Union but you cannot deny the passion in the RU England V Wales fixtures - if we can start to replicate that it would be fantastic for the game!

  • Comment number 6.

    I said that the signing of Gareth Thomas was astute in the sense that it would generate more interest in a stuttering Welsh franchise. The Crusaders are the not the Celtic of 2007: New brand name; new location; new ground; new team. Hopefully the Thomas transfer will encourage other Welsh Union players to come over. And for anyone who reckons that an influx of Welsh Union players is a bad thing, look to Widnes of old for answers.

  • Comment number 7.

    * Or 2009 for that matter!

  • Comment number 8.

    I like the guy's openness and honesty,which i can sense is what makes him the success in RU that he has been.His comments can be the best advert possible for doing something you are enjoying in a new environment.IF that brushes off onto others either as spectators or participants at any level then its fabulous news for RL which i hope brings positive developments.

  • Comment number 9.

    Good blog George.

    Felt for the guy when he was knocked senseless with vritually his first touch, but was good to see him laughing with his teammates at half time so you could tell he wasn't going to let it get him down. Pleased to see he is enjoying it!

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    jdgmedia - you'd expect not, would be nice with Alfie and Powell on board to see Gb again n'est-ce pas?
    KJWarrior - he was very keen to stress that his duel code dream is down the line - he doesn't want people to thnk he's trying to run before he can walk. He says he's trying to back himself on the pitch and go with the flow of what he sees infront of him but at the same time is trying to trust what he is being taught to do.
    Ginger_Warrior ..interesting thing for me is that with players like Thomas, Powell, perhaps Henson down the load playing league, will kids start to see there's an alternative growing up as a rugby player if they don't fancy union ?
    diamondcutter - I agree he'd be a monster - so long as he leaves the golf buggy at home.
    Rovers Return - HKR AWAY DAYS - it can't hurt can it? As I've said in previous blogs I'd love to nab Shane Williams.

  • Comment number 12.

    I play both League and Union, and reading this article Gareth has hit the nail on the head! Bigger hits, stronger runners and quicker feet in league.

    League players in general (mainly backs though) have more creativity and flair than most Union players. A league player can go to Union and make an impact far quicker than a Union to league player.

    Hats off though to Gareth and i wish him the best of luck. I hope to see more converts, and hope the fanbase follows suit, it can only be good for the game.

  • Comment number 13.

    Not sure about league players making a bigger impact in union, so far out of a dozen or so league players that have converted only a couple would be deemed sucessful.
    I think nobby will try for a fair few rugby union players, I'm sure I read on here or seen on tv a while back talking about stealing the good union players because over the last few years its been a bit one way and with all the failures; from outside view it could look like our players arnt as skilled. Which anyone who watches RL would know is a load bulls***. He was also trying to get the RFL to allow these players wages to be outside a clubs wage allowance

  • Comment number 14.

    Great blog George. I wish Gareth Thomas every success in our game and hope it encourages Welsh players, fans and businessmen to get behind the Crusaders, the Scorpions and the game in general. Personally there is only 1 person who would ever make me try a game of union and that is John Inverdale on the proviso I would be playing against him and he took the first tackle. It would be an early bath for me that's for sure.

  • Comment number 15.

    mightywarrywarry - completely agree but there has been a problem with players leaving league for union without a concrete idea of what positin they'd play - Lee Smith a prme example - naturally fantastic player, can kick, but I didn't see an obvious union position for him and I know he struggled badly with the rules.

  • Comment number 16.

    I would be sorry to lose Powell from Union but can see him fitting into League better. Wish Scotland had a league outfit but it will never happen.

  • Comment number 17.

    ScotsSevensNutjob, there is a Scotland League team, my good pal Andrew Henderson captains them - he's an Aussie, granted !

  • Comment number 18.

    Powell maybe but Henson no. Far too much of a girl.

  • Comment number 19.

    It's great press for Rugby League in Wales and it's great to see the 13-14 years development work is starting to pay off...The majority of the South Wales Scorpions have come through the development system in Wales and also the younger members of the crusaders squad have been playing rugby league since they were around 12-13 yrs old through the local south wales clubs. There is a passion for Rugby League in South Wales and anyone who plays it doesn't look back. There is a future for Rugby League in Wales but it needs to develop on and off the pitch.

  • Comment number 20.

    George, did you know you're syndicated?
    https://www.sportsillustrated.co.za/rugby/20100415/thomas-smashed-in-league-debut/

    To my mind that's a very good analysis of some of the differences between the codes - it's a little bit simplistic but still on the money.

    He probably needs a few more games before he can say he's adapted and that his body can take it.

    I could be being a bit picky but my slight issue comes when he's talking about Andy Powell.
    On the one hand, money is a key issue and he'd be taking a big pay cut to move into RL (let's face it, it's no accident that most of the moves in the past few years have gone the other way) and the quote "I reckon it will take him a couple of weeks to adjust and then he will be a huge success" is just stupid. Thomas is overstating his own adjustment to date and as a winger, his job and the adjustment to it is considerably easier than that of a forward switching to RL (which is not to denigrate the wingers craft).

    Saying that, Powell is a player that I think could certainly do it given time - in fact I think ultimately he'd be a much better RL player than he is RU.

  • Comment number 21.

    AJ - wow, no I didn't, not sure if the boss did either?! Nice publicity though.
    Alfie's point on Powell was more a reflection I think of how highly he rates the guy, rather than hitning someone could pick up the game so quick

  • Comment number 22.

    Interesting read.

    I first saw Powell play when flicking through the channels and came across some yawnion. I think it was Cardiff Northampton a few years back, i saw Powell carry the ball and make a few tackles and thought, surely this guy used to play League.

    He is huge, carries the ball at pace and with power, if he moves to League i will be amazed if he "isn't" a huge success.

  • Comment number 23.


    george

    good article but can we drop the Alfie nickname reference please - whatever the background to it - theres only one Alfie in RL and with respect its not Gareth Thomas

  • Comment number 24.

    it's not a league thing or a Langer thing Cocokin, anyone who knows Thomas knows him as Alfie

  • Comment number 25.

    I'm new to your blog, George, but I found it an enjoyable and informative read and so will be looking again in the future. I liked the links to the Union drills. That was helpful as I'm not a union watcher and so don't appreciate the more subtle differences between the two sports.

    I'm glad Thomas has joined League, albeit a bit late in the day, and I'm still hoping that League will enjoy a growing following among the Welsh as it is always good to have more teams in the sport.

  • Comment number 26.

    thankyou SaintDi, much appreciated, enjoy your rugby!

 

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