A large jug of fresh milk stands proudly on the kitchen table as Dan Thomas welcomes The XV into his family home on the outskirts of the village of Croesyceiliog near Carmarthen.
Thomas – the Bristol Bears and aspiring Wales flanker – is a welcoming host. So too are his parents Richard and Delyth. Milk is the lifeblood of Llwynhelig Farm. “Hope you don’t mind me having my breakfast,” says Richard with a laugh, as he pours it over his Rice Krispies, the morning’s work complete.
This is where Thomas, 28, spends most of his time away from rugby and where he will return permanently when his sporting career ends.
The farm has been in Thomas’ family for more than 50 years, first under Delyth’s father Walter Jones before Richard took over after quitting his previous job in a local bank.
The running joke is that when Richard married Delyth, he got the farm as part of the deal. Thomas’ passion for the herd of 108 milking cows is clear.
“I come back to the farm on most of my days off to help out,” says Thomas. “My fiancée Sophie is not exactly happy with that, but she understands because life after rugby for me will be back on the farm. I tell Sophie all the time that is when the hard work will really start.
“On a day off I can’t think of doing anything better than farming. I’d rather be doing this than wasting money on something else. Farming is a tough lifestyle but an enjoyable one.
I want to achieve as much as I possibly can in the game but as soon as I can’t play rugby, I’ll be back on the farm and my father will have to move into a bungalow.
“You have to make the most of it. Rugby is the main priority for me but farming allows me to switch off from it 100 per cent. I want to achieve as much as I possibly can in the game but I’ve tried to get things in place to help me out for the future and as soon as I can’t play rugby, I’ll be back on the farm and my father will have to move into a bungalow. He definitely won’t be waking up with me.”
In his wellies, Bristol tracksuit bottoms and blue hoodie, Thomas looks as much at home in a cowshed as he does on a rugby field. That is no surprise given both have always been staples of his life.
The Thomas family’s Llwynhelig Farm is made up of 160 acres. The cows are milked twice a day with Richard doing most of the work. Thomas’ grandfather Walter still helps out too and lives across the road. Farming will always be a way of life for those involved.
“I left school just before sixth form and my father begged me to continue,” adds Thomas. “I wasn’t fussed but I went back for a couple of months and then realised it wasn’t for me. I committed fully to the farm from then on. I always knew it was what I wanted to do after rugby but then I got signed by the Scarlets full-time. It’s tough going in farming at the moment. Milk prices have stayed roughly the same for the past 10 or 20 years but all the costs that go with it have gone up.
“My father and I have tried to make the farm as efficient and easy going as possible. Farming is labour intensive so you have to try to help yourself.
“Farming has always been tough, but the tough get through it and the weak don’t. That’s the mentality you have to have. In farming you can’t just decide to not get up and not do the milking one day. It has to be done and that farming mentality is what got me into rugby in the first place.
“It 100 per cent makes me realise how lucky I am to be a rugby player. My parents aren’t getting any younger but they’ve told me to play rugby for as long as I can because once I’m back on the farm, that’s it. If I didn’t have rugby now, I’d be the one getting up at the crack of dawn for milking and doing all the hard work. Our farm isn’t big enough to sustain two families, so my father tells me I’ve got to make the most of playing rugby. He’s pretty brutal when it comes to that.”
Thomas and Sophie – a mental-health nurse who grew up in Tumble – live together in Bristol. The couple got engaged in the Llwynhelig cowsheds, Thomas popping the question surrounded by his beloved animals. Worryingly for Sophie, it sounds like she has competition for Thomas’ affection.
She’s got a nice temperament and is very good looking! Our dog gets jealous because Wilma gets all the attention.
Dan Thomas on his favourite cow
“Wilma is my favourite cow. She’s my pride and joy,” he says. “I bought her at market in Whitland as a calf five or six months ago. We’ve never had Brown Swiss cattle – which is her breed – on the farm before. We have mainly Holstein Friesian cattle, which are suited to dairy.
“She’s got a nice temperament and is very good looking! Our dog gets jealous because Wilma gets all the attention. She is a project because I had to buy some semen for her the other day for when she’s next on heat. I do the artificial insemination needed when I am at home but, if not, we have a company who come and do it. A GPS tag on each cow shows when they are on heat and the company will then come out to inseminate the cow. Most farms have GPS collars now.”
Before talk turns to rugby, Thomas is eager to discuss Jeremy Clarkson’s impact on farming. ‘Clarkson’s Farm’ has catapulted the industry and its struggles into the attention of the wider public, something Thomas believes can only be a good thing.
“At the start I thought it was, if not false, a bit disingenuous,” says Thomas of the former Top Gear presenter’s latest venture. “But I thought it was great how honest he was and how he revealed all the figures that showed the tiny profit he made. If you have a bad year in farming then you only just about break even. It was great for the farming community because it raised awareness.”
Thomas spent several days back on the farm last week before a quick break in Romania with Sophie, as Bristol’s players enjoyed their down week in the Gallagher Premiership.
It has been a chance for Pat Lam’s side to press the reset button after a poor start to the season in which they won just one of their first five games.
The Bears are second-bottom going into round seven and Saturday’s trip to London Irish.
“This season has been a big learning curve for us as players,” says Thomas, who has been at Ashton Gate since the 2017-18 campaign. “Last season we were top of the league at this stage.
“It’s tough going at the moment but being in a situation like this might be a good thing for us in the long run. We can’t really put our finger on why we’ve had the results we have. In the first half at Harlequins, we were 21 points up and thought we were on track but it was déjà vu all over again. It’s not always going to be nice and dandy in rugby.
“We aren’t getting the results we’re used to but we have enough experience in the squad and with Pat to be able to address what we see in front of us. I’m confident the wheel will turn.”
Thomas was first signed as a professional by Nigel Davies at his home region Scarlets and he became the latest in a long line of products from west Wales to join the Llanelli-based side.
Mike Phillips, Jonathan and James Davies and the great Delme Thomas are all products of Bancyfelin, just around the corner from Croesyceiliog. Dan Thomas’ brother James played for Whitland alongside former Wales scrum-half Phillips against Aberystwyth last weekend. Cycling superstar Geraint Thomas’ father Howell was also raised from farming stock in the area.
Dan Thomas’ career hasn’t been straightforward. He was released by the Scarlets despite helping Wales Under-20s to the final of the 2013 Junior World Championship, where they were beaten by England. Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie were all in that Red Rose side. Thomas then had a stint at Gloucester before joining Bristol in the Championship.
“I joined Bristol at the same time as Pat and he has turned the whole place around,” says Thomas over tea, a tour of the farm now complete.
“I was signed by Nigel for both Scarlets and Gloucester. I owe him a lot but I never got to play for him. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be at Bristol now. My dad told me I was in the last chance saloon when I joined Bristol because it was my third club and I had to make something of it. Pat didn’t know who I was when he signed me but I’ve got my head down at Bristol and worked hard.
“The Bristol players have all bought into the club and we are one big family. I’ve made friends for life there and I’ve always had the boys come and visit me on the farm when they want to.
They always talk about coming back because Semi and Nathan each had a pint of milk fresh from the tank. Semi had his best season for us after that and he still gives me an empty bottle to fill up for him when I come home.
“Semi Radradra, Nathan Hughes, Harry Thacker, Niyi Adeolokun and Siva Naulago all turned up one day. We had a pig roast out the front of the farm and most of my family and friends came too. It was crazy that Semi, who is one of the best players in the world, came to visit my family farm and stayed the night in my grandfather’s house. He helped cook the pig by digging a hole in the ground. He’s a real gentleman.
“It meant a lot to me and my family that the boys visited. They always talk about coming back because Semi and Nathan each had a pint of milk fresh from the tank. Semi had his best season for us after that and he still gives me an empty bottle to fill up for him when I come home.
“I’m very privileged and thankful for what rugby has given me, I’ve got to play with and against some of the sport’s biggest names. I’ll never take it for granted because one day I know rugby will end for me and I’ll come back to the farm. By that point, Semi will probably be back on the other side of the world but we’ll both have these memories that will last forever.”
Bristol might have spluttered into Premiership life this term but Thomas has certainly repaid Lam for the gamble he took in signing him. He has been a hugely impressive performer in English rugby’s top division and went viral during lockdown when he posted videos of him squatting young calves in a bid to stay fit on social media. A Rocky-style gym on the farm, complete with motivational posters, also helped him through the pandemic. Still, Thomas is yet to receive a senior Welsh call.
Wales head coach Wayne Pivac has a plethora of flankers from which to choose, but if he can afford to ignore Thomas’ consistency then he must consider that a fortunate position to be in.
Thomas remains available to be picked by Wales despite playing in England under the Welsh Rugby Union’s 60-cap ruling because he is yet to feature in a Test.
I think the world of Bristol and playing well for them is all that matters to me. That’s all I can control… I need to step up for Bristol this season before I think of anything else.
Dan Thomas on his Wales Test hopes
“Every kid’s dream is to play for their country and that’s what I want to do but at the moment I just have to perform for Bristol,” says Thomas, who is committed to the Bears on a long-term deal.
“My mentality is if I do that, everything else will take care of itself. This season hasn’t been great for us so far but there is a long way to go. I spoke to Wayne two-thirds of the way through last season. He came to watch our training because Callum Sheedy and Ioan Lloyd are at Bristol too. He said he was happy with the way I was playing but that I had to keep going.
“I think the world of Bristol and playing well for them is all that matters to me. That’s all I can control. At Bristol, we have regular crowds of 20,000 and I’ve made lifelong friends there.
“My fiancée is settled there too. My father always tells me I’m only as good as my last game and I need to step up for Bristol this season before I think of anything else.
“Pat has put a lot of trust, time and money into me. I have to repay that.”