Another step on long road for Thomas
WHEN, in January of last year, Arwel Thomas made his senior international debut for Wales in the out-half position, his selection was considered to be an inevitable step in the progress of what was deemed a special and precocious talent. Thomas had celebrated his 21st birthday just a few months before he won that first cap.
He had worn the famous red jersey of his country at youth, student and under-21 levels. Now the promise shown from an early age was coming to fruition and would prosper on the most demanding stage of all - the international arena.
Kevin Bowring, who had taken over as Welsh coach, placed his confidence in the youngster as he sought to rebuild the Welsh team in the aftermath of what had been a poor World Cup campaign.
Bowring set out to get Wales to play in what he described as "the traditional manner" and Thomas was deemed to have the skills to allow the Welsh three quarters to express their talents.
Thomas took over the number 10 jersey from Neil Jenkins, who was injured, but a player more famous for his kicking skills than the fluid approach that Bowring saw as the way forward.
The latest model from the production line of the Welsh out-half factory, his international debut gave substance to the view that another great talent had emerged when he played very well and scored 16 points against Italy.
After that, Thomas, not surprisingly, was retained and Jenkins, fit again, had to be content with a place on the replacement bench.
Thomas played against England in the championship at Twickenham and set up a try with a cheeky bit of improvisation. Wales lost that match, but Thomas was retained. He was in the side against Scotland and played well, even though he missed a late kick at goal that would gave given Wales a draw. But Bowring kept faith with the youngster for the match against Ireland in Dublin.
Over to Thomas. "People talk about learning curves, but that match in Lansdowne Road was much more than that - it was my nightmare," said Thomas as he prepared this week to face Ireland again, this time in Cardiff.
"That was the lowest point of my career. It is hard to say just why things went so badly wrong for me, but just about everything did. I had played in Twickenham and did not feel unduly nervous or anything before the match in Dublin.
"It was one of those days that you have to put behind you as quickly as you can. I am happy to say I have done that now. It is history, but I did learn a valuable lesson," said Thomas, who after receiving a heavy tackle in the match seemed to go to pieces.
"It was not the tackle as such, it was concentration, just about everything. The harder I tried the worse I got. As I say, my nightmare.
Not surprisingly, Thomas was dropped for the match against France, but to his great credit, he did put it behind him. In addition to Jenkins, however, another threat to his international career had re-emerged in the person of Jonathan Davies. He was back from rugby league and playing for Cardiff. "I knew that if I was to regain my place on the Welsh side, I would have to earn it and play exceptionally well," said Thomas.
Thomas decided to move back to Wales to play his club rugby, leaving Bristol to play with Swansea. "I owe Bristol a lot and they were very disappointed when I left. But I wanted to return to Wales. I think it has proved to be the right decision. It has helped my career, he said.
"Playing in Wales suits me in that the game is more expansive, I am playing before my own people and the level of exposure has also been helpful. I have got great support from the public and that too has helped. In saying that, I do not want in any way to devalue the time I spent with Bristol. I won my first cap out of Bristol and you cannot dismiss that."
Davies won his way back onto the Welsh side as Thomas stayed in the international shadows, then, as Thomas says, he "got a lucky break".
Davies had to withdraw from the side that played South Africa in December and Thomas got the call. Wales lost the match but Thomas, who scored a very good try late in the game, was back in the frame.
"Things went reasonably well for me and I was delighted to be retained for the match against Scotland last Saturday week," he said.
Thomas says he will not be inhibited playing against Ireland because of what happened last year.
"That is behind me and that is where I want it to stay. We have immense respect for Ireland, it could not be any other way. Look at their recent record against us. They have a very good pack and I am sure Brian Ashton will do a lot to improve the team."
Thomas also paid tribute to his immediate opponent next Saturday, Erie Elwood. "He is a very good player, a superb footballer, and a man who has done Wales a lot of damage in his time. He is a great kicker in every respect, a very good tackler. I have not played against him before, but I am well aware of his ability and his previous achievements."
And on the outcome next Saturday: "It is stating the obvious that I hope we win. The win against Scotland was a great start to the championship for us, especially winning away from home.
"It has helped our confidence. But there is absolutely no complacency in our side. One good win does not mean a new dawn and a new era. International rugby does not work like that."
And on a personal level, Thomas says: "I hope I play infinitely better on Saturday than I did against Ireland last year."
Thomas knows that fee still has much to prove and to achieve before he can feel that he is an established member of the Welsh side. "A good match on Saturday will be no more than another step along that road," he said.