Arwel Thomas isn’t someone who spends his life by a calendar waiting to celebrate his own sporting anniversaries, so when he learns it is exactly 25 years since he made his Wales rugby debut he is genuinely surprised.
“Incredible,” he laughs.
“When the text came through, I was, like: ‘Wow.’
“You don’t realise time is passing so quickly.”
The text came from this writer asking the former Wales, Swansea, Neath and Bristol fly-half if he’d be up for a chat to mark such a landmark. There was a time when we’d speak at least once a week, back in the days when sports reporters didn’t have to climb through hoops to access players and coaches. A quick call and a request for a few words was all it needed. Some occasionally made their excuses and put you off. Thomas was never among them, even at the height of his career.
He was always approachable, always helpful.
Nothing had changed four years ago when WalesOnline rang for an interview. He was still the same, gliding into Morgans Hotel in Swansea, shimmying past a couple of people enjoying breakfast, as he might have shimmied past a couple of would-be defenders back in the day. Disarmingly frank, as he used to be.
He played for Neath at the age of 19, then he left for Bristol, where he attended college for a law course — “I didn’t know what the hell was going on, so I didn’t go there much” — and played for a club who were trying to restore former glories. Then he won a Wales cap a couple of months after his 21st birthday. There was so much natural ability, but so much he didn’t know, on and off the pitch.
Media training? Back then for players it equated to seeing a journalist running down the street in a pair of shorts. What it didn’t involve was being told what to say or do when a reporter with a notebook and a micro cassette hovered into view.
Then there was the question of being fully tuned to matters on the field at Test level.
Thomas had sprung to prominence for his ability to play the game as he saw it — the first time this reporter saw him play, at Maesteg, he bewildered with his flair and guile, playing as if enjoying a Sunday morning run-around with his mates — but at Test level everything was a million times more serious.
It didn’t take him long to realise as much.
“I learned so much in that first 10 to 15 minutes of my debut,” he says.
“We were playing Italy and Diego Dominguez was playing for them.
“He was a really good kicking fly-half, but what struck me was how he approached the game.
“Whereas I was pretty much a happy-go-lucky, have-a-go, passing-and- running-about 10 — ‘unlucky, don’t worry, let’s have another go’ — not really prepared for it all in so many ways, he was physical, edgy and aggressive.
“I picked that up straightaway.
“I didn’t think he would be like that.
“I thought he would be like a lot of other 10s I’d come across.
“But he was really up for it, determined and mentally strong.
“He was smaller than me — bigger built, but not much — and maybe I should have learned from that, because on the field a player has to try to protect himself mentally and physically.
“Looking back I wasn’t emotionally, mentally or physically prepared for it all.
“I was only 21.
“When you’re picked by Wales at that age, especially back then, there’s so much you don’t know. You can’t flick a switch and call up experience. It’s something that comes over a period of years.
“But it’s all good. I enjoyed it and had a lot of fun. I have great memories because they were good times. Looking back on your life, you’d try to react differently in certain situations and be more streetwise. But I guess the only way you acquire experience is to live through things. I don’t blame anyone. You have to learn as you go along.”
He adds: “Nowadays, everyone seems emotionally switched on but, in a way, they’re switched off, because they just get on with it and do their jobs. There’s not much going on in games these days.”
There was always something going on when Thomas played. He took risks and had an imagination. On a good day, he was the type of player you’d go into the red to see play. For Swansea, he set up numerous tries with beautifully timed passing, sleight of hand and ability to beat opponents. Scott Gibbs and Mark Taylor benefitted from his skill and vision.
When the diminutive outside half played for the Whites against Wasps in a Heineken Cup encounter that Swansea won 54-28 in 2000, Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley in the opposition back row couldn’t lay a hand on him. His all-round game held Wasps in a trance, one report accurately noted.
It was the same against Llanelli in the 1999 Welsh Cup final. Swansea tamed their arch rivals up front, while the old firm of Gibbs and Taylor were immense in midfield. But Thomas orchestrated matters with aplomb and took the man-of-the-match award. The late John Billot, who had seen some top-quality fly-half displays over the years, used the pages of the Rugby Annual of Wales to call it a “master-class”.
On others days Thomas, a confidence player, could misfire.
If it happened at Test level, there’d then be calls to reinstate Neil Jenkins, with whom Thomas contested the Wales No. 10 shirt for much of his career. If Wales didn’t ignite with Jenkins calling the shots, the lobby to see Thomas handed back the shirt would become ever more vociferous. And so it went on. But there was never any animus between the pair. “Neil’s a nice guy,” says Thomas.
“And what a servant he’s been to Welsh rugby. I have nothing but positives to say about him.”
Thomas hopes care will be taken with Sam Costelow, a young fly-half who has caught his eye with the Scarlets. “He scored a nice try the other week and seems to have a bit of spark about him,” he says.
“But it takes time to learn the game at that level.
“Hopefully, people will be there to help him.
“I was a decent player. I knew how to play rugby. But to be the full package you have to be prepared for it.
“I hope the right people are there to offer him advice.”
Let’s cut to one of Thomas’ finest hours in a Wales shirt, when Wales played Scotland in 1997 amid a collective tour de force from returning rugby league stars Gibbs, Allan Bateman, Dai Young and Scott Quinnell. Thomas scored a memorable try, collecting the ball and then running... and running, so far he came close to crossing the dead ball line before touching down. It’s a score that sticks in the memory of pretty much all who saw it.
“It was luck,” he says today.
“The ball bounced up and I had to get away from their scrum-half Gary Armstrong. I then ran free of the people who were trying to catch me.
“We’d made such a thing about the dead-ball area beforehand in the warm-ups.
“It was massive, almost as big as the 22, and we’d spoken about it a lot.
“So I just kept on running. I guess I was enjoying the moment, making it last a bit longer.
“It never flashed through my mind I might have been going too far. I just got the ball, got away from people and ran in. Happy days.”
Thomas is more comfortable talking about others than himself, players he considers himself fortunate to have figured alongside. “Bateman was a great player,” he says of Allan Bateman.
“He’s a legend — an absolute legend.
“You might pass the ball a bit loosely and some centres might say: ‘That was a bit high, or that was a bit low.’
“Bateman would just catch it, beat his man and carry on.
“I remember I put in a kick that was charged down.
“Before I’d had time to think about it, Bateman was back there covering. He took on two players and saved the day — no fuss.
“Gibbs and Taylor were outstanding, too.
“Gibbsy could hit a line, I could hopefully run a line, and he could hit off it. If that wasn’t on we’d play Taylor in. Taylor would either run over someone, run under someone or run around someone.
“Leigh Davies was another one. When he came on the scene as a teenager, people hadn’t seen a young player like him.
“And I don’t forget a centre who was at Neath when I joined them.
“Jeff Bird just knew what was what.
“He helped so much — ‘any problem, give it here’. He could kick it, carry it up or make a play. At the time I probably took those little snippets of information for granted.
“But if I see Jeff around I always remember what he did for me.
“He may not have played for Wales, but what a sportsman, what a calming influence. He had so much knowledge. He had awareness — been there, done it and happy to pass it on.
“The game today is missing people like him.”
Time is ticking on and the morning is giving up on us quickly.
There are still a few minutes left to ask Thomas about his early days at Neath. What was it like for a fresh-faced youngster to walk into The Gnoll dressing room?
“I had to change by the farmers (Brian Williams, Kevin Phillips and John Davies). They’d come off the farm and put all their stuff up and it was covered in s**t from their work.
“I soon realised no one wanted to change by them.
“But they were great with me. Brian insisted on speaking Welsh. I could get by, so we got on all right.
“A few months later we were playing South Africa.
“I was a kid on the telly and facing the Springboks. It was surreal.
“What a team we had. Our forwards — Jesus.
"Brian, Andrew Kembery, Chris Wyatt, Chris Scott, Barry Williams, John Davies, Steve Williams, Gareth Llewellyn: That’s a heck of a pack.
“But Brian was on his own. What a player — a superhero who shouldn’t have been able to do the stuff he did.
“In that South Africa game, he picked up a knock that left him dazed. Gareth Llewellyn wiped someone else’s blood over Brian to give him time on the side to clear his thoughts. Then he came back onto the field, bandaged up after the cut that never was. The match was berserk, absolutely berserk.”
For all that, Thomas would not trade what he experienced for a place in the modern game, saying: “I’m glad I played when I did.
“I understand the world is different and the sport is properly professional now, but I’m old-fashioned.
“When I played the club scene was full-on every week.
“You could go up to Ebbw Vale on a Friday night and perhaps take a hammering. Bridgend would be a hard match at the Brewery Field, while Swansea against Neath would be massive. Cardiff were strong, along with Pontypridd, and Newport had a really good side, Llanelli — always good. There was huge tribalism and history there.
“The crowds would be there, people would talk to you in the streets about the games.
“Like I say, I understand why the game here changed, because of the money situation and so on.
“But I preferred it as it used to be.
“It was great.
“I don’t want to be negative. I guess there are good things and bad things from the game then and now.”
Married to Clare and with daughter Nia at university studying law and son Harri doing his A levels, Thomas works for Henry Schein dental as a sales representative, also acting as backs coach for Morriston RFC in his spare time. “We have some really good players, some excellent youngsters,” he says.
As he notes, the rugby world has transformed since he played.
But memories of him in his Swansea pomp remain vivid.
You couldn’t always be sure what you’d get.
But, as a wise man once said, only the mediocre are always at their best.
For a few brief years, the slightly-built No. 10 from Trebanos was one of Welsh rugby’s star turns.
Yes, he had the odd crease in his game.
But who’s perfect?
Thomas never claimed to be — not then, not now.
But he was always worth watching.