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FEATURE Gareth Thomas: 'I’ve always thought I was a bit like Dan Carter.'

Gareth Thomas: 'I’ve always thought I was a bit like Dan Carter.'
3 weeks ago

“Oh, you’re interviewing Gareth Thomas, what is Alfie up to the days?”, chimed a friend, when this writer mentioned he was interviewing the Ospreys loosehead.

In the same way the peerless Jonathan ‘Foxy’ Davies spent a career escaping the shadow of his famous namesake, Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies, Thomas will forever be mistaken with the 100-cap former Wales and British & Irish Lion.

Now 30, with 31 caps, Thomas has eased his way into the Wales No 1 shirt in recent years, having wrestled it off Wyn Jones and his Ospreys team-mate Nicky Smith, not that he will ever feel it is ‘his’ shirt, of course, with Corey Domachowski and Kemsley Mathias the latest looseheads to vie for his crown.

Nevertheless, with Wales’ golden generation heading only one way, the 6ft 2in, 19st prop, in the absence of stalwarts Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Ken Owens, knows the onus is on him to step up and lead this callow body of men, as they ripen for Test rugby.

“I do feel like one of the senior boys now, especially now I have a bit of experience,” he says, reclining on his chair after a draining session at the Vale of Glamorgan. “It’s such a young group at the minute, you have to step up as a bit of a leader,” On spotting the 76-cap Scarlets scrum-half and fellow Newcastle Emlyn boy, he quips. “Fortunately, Gareth Davies is raising the age average,” chuckling away. “Seriously, it’s good at the minute, I’m enjoying it. When you had such a big group of leaders before, it was easy to just follow them. You didn’t need to speak up or say anything. Having lost all those boys to retirement, you find a voice that perhaps you didn’t have before.”

Gareth Thomas
With the retirements of Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Ken Owens, Gareth Thomas knows he needs to step up (Photo by Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

Thomas’ confidence isn’t misplaced. The Ospreys were Wales’ standout region this season, reaching the play-offs, and a large reason for that was their excellence at set-piece, with fellow Welsh team-mates Dewi Lake and Sam Parry to the fore. “In the URC (United Rugby Championship), playing for the Ospreys, we back ourselves against anyone. It makes a massive difference having Dewi and Sam, who are scrummaging hookers, around me. You can get yourselves in a positive mentality with those boys around.”

The one Osprey he will not be standing shoulder to shoulder with next season is Smith, the 46-cap Wales loosehead Thomas has enjoyed a competitive rivalry with for a decade. Far from willing him on his way, Thomas says he will miss a man who set the standards at the Liberty. “Me and Nicky are really good friends. I’m very lucky to have had him as a fellow No 1 for the last decade. We’ve both driven each other’s standards, I’ve had to train so hard just to keep up with him because he’s such a competitor. Having trained with him for so long, I’d say he’s the best No 1 I’ve faced. He’s a funny bloke and hell of a character and I wouldn’t be where I am without him. I speak for all of the boys when I say we’ll miss having him around.”

I do feel the pressure but I actually quite like it. I like being in that stressful place and when I’m in down-time I actually miss the intensity of Test match rugby. The bigger the better for me.

With the likes of Mathias, and tightheads Harri O’Connor and Archie Griffin, still in the early stages of their propping careers, Thomas is clear that the only way they can improve is by playing. “It’s tough to know what to say to young props coming through, because I didn’t always get it right at that age. It took me a while. You’ve just got to get your head switched on and accept you’re going to feel some pain. The important thing is to go back again and be aggressive. You have to take a few hidings to learn up front, but you can’t adopt the mentality that ‘they’re coming for us’, or you’re already on the backfoot. You have to prepare to go hard against the best in the biggest games.”

When the palms are sweaty, the heart is pounding, and he can hear the hymns and arias building to a crescendo, waiting in the tunnel before emerging into the Test match arena, Thomas says the pre-match tension actually suits him. “I do feel the pressure but I actually quite like it. I like being in that stressful place and when I’m in down-time I actually miss the intensity of Test match rugby. The bigger the better for me. I can’t put a finger on it, but weirdly I thrive on it.”

In the starting line-up for the South Africa Test, only Aaron Wainwright has more caps than the West Walian in the pack, and Thomas isn’t shying away from what could be a thorough examination of their credentials at Twickenham. Not that he is overawed. “They’re not bad, are they?”, he says deadpan. “We’ve worked very hard on our set-piece to get ready. Undoubtedly, they have some of the best scrummagers in the world in Ox Nche, Frans Malherbe, Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch. We have our work cut out with a young group who haven’t experienced that before. Personally, I prefer propping down against the taller tightheads, as I’m quite tall myself. We played three Tests out in South Africa in 2022 and I’ve played Malherbe (6ft 3ins) and Koch (6ft 1ins) before, so I’d like to think I know what’s coming. If I’m playing to my potential, I back myself to go well.”

While the set-piece is fundamental to how a prop is judged, one area Wales excel in is handling in the front row, with Assirratti, Domachowski and Thomas all supreme handlers of the ball. It is an area Thomas feels comfortable. “There’s a responsibility these days, that no matter what position you are, you have to be able to handle the ball. You can’t try and avoid it. You have to actively look for those moments when you can get your hands on the ball, even if there’s a lot of pressure to execute. I’ve always liked carrying, and in my pomp, I always thought I was a bit like Dan Carter – sadly those days have long gone.”

There’s no doubt the Aussies are coming for us big time after the World Cup. They are going to come flying out of the blocks with so many new players trying to impress. They are going to be two huge Tests.

Within days, Wales will be heading to Australia. It was only 10 months ago, remember, where they inflicted a humiliating 40-6 shellacking on the wounded Wallabies and the shock waves led to the eventual departure of coach Eddie Jones. With Joe Schmidt at the helm and backed by the hugely experienced Laurie Fisher and Mike Cron, Thomas is expecting a far less brittle Australia side to defend their territory.

“There’s no doubt the Aussies are coming for us big time after the World Cup. They are going to come flying out of the blocks with so many new players trying to impress. We’re expecting a huge physical challenge and we have to do what we did in the World Cup and leave nothing out there. They are going to be two huge Tests.”

Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas will soon head to Australia for a rematch with the Wallabies (Photo Craig Mercera/Getty Images)

It is, lest we forget, less than a year until a squad of players from the home unions return Down Under and at 31, and with a likely 40-odd caps to his name, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola left out to graze and Ellis Genge and Andew Porter in the box-seat, is there any reason why Thomas shouldn’t aim for a spot on tour? After all, Wyn Jones started in 2021 and Thomas’ chop tackling, handling in the loose and set-piece stability mark him out as a loosehead with a rounded game suited to the fast tracks out in Australia. “I suppose so”, he smiles. “For now, I’m just going to go from campaign to campaign. Firstly, I want to get back to winning Test matches with this group and see where that takes me. I truly believe we can do something special in the future with this young group.”

Speaking of pressure, Thomas, a dad with an 18-month-old daughter Hali-Ann, has a race against time to dash off and pick her up from nursery. If you thought a smattering of Springbok props worried the giant prop, it’s nothing on the apple of his eye. “She’s running riot at home, bossing me about, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Thomas isn’t one for filling the space with hot air. What he says, he means, and Wales will need every ounce of his indefatigability in the coming months. The big man from Newcastle-Emlyn is stepping up, ready to emerge from the shadows of his famous namesake.

For last-minute tickets to the game https://www.eticketing.co.uk/principalitystadium/

Comments

1 Comment
B
Bull Shark 21 days ago

I’ve always thought I was a bit like Ryan Gosling.

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