Gareth Thomas

Gareth Thomas’s switch to Rugby League was huge news for the code in early 2010. I was at his unveiling as a Crusaders player for League Express.

GARETH Thomas is fully aware that his switch to Rugby League will present him with the biggest challenge in his life – bigger even that coming out!

The Welsh union icon, who has one-hundred caps to his name in the 15-man code, publicly announced his sexuality in a national newspaper in December. And after talking to David Bishop, the Welsh union player who switched to Hull Kingston Rovers in the late ‘eighties, Thomas has been left in no doubt how tough a game Rugby League is.

Speaking after being introduced to the media on Friday, Thomas told League Express: “This is the biggest challenge of my life. [Coming out] was a lifestyle challenge, completely different. But this is something special.

“This gets me really excited, it floats my boat because I have no idea what’s going to happen when I walk out there for the first time. I really don’t know! The only person in control is me and that’s how I want it. Right now for me, this is fantastic.

“On the field, I will have to wipe away all the rugby instincts I’ve had since the age of six. Taking all that away and learning something new is definitely going to be the biggest challenge I’ve had.

“Basically Bish said it’s like shuttle runs into brick walls. He didn’t paint too pretty a picture of it! But I don’t see it as a daunting challenge; I see it as an exciting challenge. If you’re a rugby player who doesn’t like challenges, you’re not much of a rugby player at all.”

Thomas also refuses to be weighed down by the expectation that comes with his high profile stature.

“When you have history and achievement behind you, expectation comes with that,” he said.

“I set my own standards so I’m not going out there to please everybody – that would be impossible. I’ll be going out there to please my teammates and coaches. You can’t control expectation outside there. I will always expect to get better and better – that’s what drives me as a player and a person – but I also know you can’t live up to other people’s expectations.”

Thomas, will make his debut in the televised home match with Catalans a week on Friday, also dismissed suggestions that his age will limit what he can do on the field.

“I don’t care that I’m 35 because I don’t feel 35,” he responded. “It’s my age and I can’t get away from it. I’m sure people will point it out a lot but as fast as I run I won’t get away from it!

“I’m fully fit and ready to go. It’s taken a couple of weeks to sort and I can’t wait to start. I’d love to play against St Helens [this weekend] but that’s not down to me. Hopefully when I am in the side, it will be because I’ve proved what I can do in training. I don’t want to be in the team for any other reason. I want to be there because my coach thinks I deserve to be there.”

Scott Quinnell, one of the last big-name union-to-League signings has warned Thomas that his calves and hamstrings will feel the strain as he adapts to the ten-metre rule in his new game.

“I’m sure they’re up to it but we’ll sure as hell soon find out!” he laughed. “But I’ve always prided myself in my training and my fitness. My first week’s training will be interesting and I’m sure everything I’m asked to do will be for my benefit.”

Thomas was interested to learn that Gethin Jenkins and Lee Byrne from the current Wales rugby union squad have played Rugby League before, as has Richard Hibbard, another recent Welsh union cap. And he pointed out that Welsh union players respect our game enormously.

“Really? I didn’t know that. But I do know that rugby union players admire the fitness of Rugby League players and how their bodies take the hits. There’s a lot of people in union who will sit and watch League and enjoy it.

“I grew up thinking Rugby League was a great sport because players like Scott Gibbs, Scott Quinnell, John Devereux and Kevin Ellis were great icons in union. I’ve never noticed a rift between the two sports.

“I’ve always watched it. I used to go and watch Kevin Ellis and Allan Bateman at Warrington. I’ve watch League a lot on TV and I watched the Crusaders last year at Bridgend. It’s always something I’ve been interested in doing. It’s a good time for me and everything about it seems right. I hope I can repay the faith people have shown in me.”

THE signing of Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby union legend, is likely to treble the Crusaders’ crowd for their home match with Catalans Dragons next Friday, the game in which Thomas will make his Rugby League debut.

The club confirmed that Thomas would feature in that fixture and chief executive Paul Retout, who told League Express last week that a big-name union player was on the verge of switching codes, believes that Thomas’s signing will pay instant dividends.

“We planned for a crowd of about 3,500 for the Catalans fixture at the start of the season, but it could well now sell out with the Thomas factor,” he said on Friday as the 35-year-old outside back was unveiled.

“It’s tremendously exciting for the club and for Rugby League as a whole.

“There are commercial spin-offs including shirts and attracting more Welsh support. In a commercial way, he’ll help the club immensely but he’s here as a player first and foremost.”

Thomas, who starts training today [Monday] added: “I didn’t realise how much interest this would stir up. I didn’t think it would be this big a deal!

“It’s good for the club because it will bring them some focus. Hopefully people will read this and think ‘this is interesting – maybe I’ll go along.’

“As much as I know I’m a player first and foremost, if my being here gets bums on seats and makes Super League bigger in Wales then great.

“I’m here as a player and I’m so excited about getting on the training field. But I know that what I’ve done in the past can help others. I’m passionate about coaching children and promoting this club.”

Brian Noble, the club’s coach, meanwhile, believes that Rugby League has badly missed the signings of rugby union players in the Super League era and is delighted that his club have been able to buck the trend in snaring Thomas from Cardiff Blues.

Players crossed the divide to the 13-man code of rugby with regularity before union went professional in September 1995. Since then, the traffic has gone almost exclusively the other way at the highest level, with the exception of players like Iestyn Harris and Henry Paul switching back to their original sport.

“I think we’ve missed this,” said Noble, who has been vocal in the past of his desire to see union players come to League.

“It brought us a stronger international identity and I was a huge fan of the rugby union converts who came in and I think the game was. I just feel we lost that but union can afford to pay their players a bit more than we can.”

When it was put to Noble that some union-to-League converts, like the former All Black John Gallagher who moved to Leeds in 1990, weren’t successful, he said: “I think you’re being very unfair to John Gallagher. He wasn’t a failure, he just wasn’t a world-class player like he had been in rugby union. Perhaps there were one ot two [who failed to make the grade] but, in the main, they were good players.

“Back in the days when Jonathan Davies and John Devereux were thrashing everybody, I was on the receiving end of that. Anyone who’s listened to my comments, we’ve lost a huge chunk of Rugby League by not having the union players, particularly from Wales. I played with Phil Ford and Gerald Cordle and also Terry Holmes, the great Terry Holmes, who was so unlucky with injuries. He would have been an absolutely breathtakingly awesome player.

“I know full well what Gareth will hopefully bring to our club. Knowing him as a person, he’ll add to our squad and add to the camaraderie.

“The primary concern for me was that he wanted to do it. He’s completed a few challenges in his life and this is the next for him.

“We need to be patient with Gareth, he won’t be a ready-made Rugby League player.”

Crusaders, meanwhile, benefited from a weekend off last week according to Noble, who also confirmed that Rhys Hanbury, who has been signed from Wests Tigers, should join up with the club shortly. He also hinted that their transfer activities haven’t finished with Thomas with the club on the verge of signing another player, although not another cross-coder.

“We did a little bit of the pre-season stuff that we didn’t get the chance to do,” he said. “We’re still new and we’re growing as a group and learning how we want to play. The last two weeks have been about that. We’ve had a mini pre-season.

“We’re hoping Rhys will be rubber-stamped in the next couple of days and it will be seven or ten days after that before he’s here.

“We’ll have Tony Martin back from injury in the next couple of weeks and probably one other new player coming in. He’s a current League player.”

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