This article was first published in Rugby League World – Issue 352. Subscribe to future issues here.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, ALFIE?
Welsh rugby union legend Gareth Thomas has been interviewed about many things, many times but here, for the first time ever, he talks publicly to a fellow professional player, our resident Super League star JAMIE JONES-BUCHANAN about his life on and off the field and his enthusiasm for his newly chosen sport of Rugby League.
Rugby union has cropped up way too much for my liking in my recent interviews. This month it was impossible to avoid when I caught up with Gareth Thomas, a legend in the other code now playing Rugby League with Crusaders. I have to say, Gareth is one of the nicest people I have ever interviewed. It is not too hard to understand why he has had such a successful career given that he is constantly on the look out for a new challenge and has the kind of mental toughness to adversity that you tend to read about in the typical sport star biography. It is rare for a top rugby union player to make the switch to Rugby League at all these days but Gareth has made the move wholeheartedly.
The rough and tumble, organised chaos of union had once caused him to have a stroke, so the first thing I wanted to know was which game was actually the toughest both physically and mentally and how he dealt with the transition.
“For me, league is more physical without a shadow of a doubt. Particularly in my position because where I played in union (centre, wing or fullback) you make maybe six or seven carries a game whereas in league you’re doing 15 to 20, the contact is more frequent and what I found in league is that even on the wing you can never rest.
“In union there’s a lot of kicking and set plays going on which seems to take ages to play, whereas in league if you shut down for a few seconds the players are so talented in recognising that you’re up or you’re out of the line and they put the ball into the air into a gap and score. It’s 80 minutes of working whereas in union you can rest and have a look at what’s going on in the crowd a lot of the time.
“It was tough at first, my first game was a little disastrous. I had only been training for a week. I don’t know what I was expecting but I wasn’t expecting that. They gave me a bit of a battering but I’m into it now and I am really enjoying the challenge. I’m just really enjoying the game, it’s so different to union but in a weird way it’s so much the same, but it was refreshing for me to do something different and try something brand new.
“I don’t have a great deal of spare time. I’m on the field constantly and I have never trained so much in my life. It’s fairly intense and because the training is tougher than it is in union a lot of my time I’m spending in the jacuzzi or pool or eating more food trying to put the energy back into me. In my spare time I like to chill out, ride my motorbike, listen to a bit of music or meet up with friends for a coffee.
“I used to have a lot more time. I think league training is a little more specific to the game. I mean because, in my opinion, league is more physical game, training is up a notch because the games are up a notch. So much goes on in the tackle with league players trying to manipulate people, get them on their backs, the wrestle on the floor. I never realised all this went on, especially when you’re on the ball and you want to wrap the ball up or you want to wrap their arms up. We do a lot more wrestling and technical stuff but to do that you have to get physical with each other. At the Cardiff Blues maybe once a week we did a live contact session for five or ten minutes. There are lots of technical areas in league and to properly benefit from practicing them you have to do it full on.
Nobby & Iestyn: Perfect combination
“It’s not easy talking your coach up because you feel like a butt-kisser, but one of the reasons I came here was Iestyn (Harris). I had played with him at union, I knew what he is like, he had flair about him, and I thought I could understand the way he coached and I do. He’s got a bit of openness about him, a lot of skill and that’s the way he likes to coach. Then you have Nobby who is absolutely outstanding to me learning the game. He’s been around for a long time, he’s strict on his ways because they work. We have a great combination with a contemporary coach who has played in the modern era in Iestyn and a tough, intelligent, experienced coach in Brian Noble, it’s a perfect combination.
“I have been impressed with the boys and I think we will get better as we have more time together. We will get better and better. The youth is important too. The more quality young Welsh players we have coming through wearing the jersey the more it’s going to promote the club and the game and give them a choice between Rugby League and rugby union. We have a lot of heroes and role models playing union that the youngsters like to emulate. The more heroes we get coming through to play league the more kids will come along trying to emulate them in this game.
“I would say the tough thing I found on the wing – and it might seem basic – was counting the tackles. Obviously having to drop back on the fourth tackle for the kick as a winger, I wasn’t used to counting the tackles and was expecting the kick on second or third play because it can come at any time in union. Also, just being switched on all the time, because in union I had a habit of letting my mind wander for five minutes then I would get back in the game. Even if there’s nothing for me to do in the game now I have to constantly keep talking to the guys inside me and stay switched on.
“The neck I did about four years ago. I got punched whilst playing and bruised one of the main arteries to the brain. It collapsed and I had a stroke. I was in hospital which was a pretty horrible experience and they said that it was my choice whether I played or not. They weren’t going to say I could or I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready to finish. Without rugby in my life there wasn’t very much else for me to do. It worried me for a while and I couldn’t do anything for six months and I came back after eight. At the start it was playing on my mind, then I just thought if I’m going to play with it constantly on my mind then I may as well not play with it at all. I would rather be out there playing, good or bad but not having that there as an excuse, so it was like ‘whatever will be will be,’ really.”
Alf and the Ayatollah
I’ll be honest, I’m not the most literate when it comes to league so I have no chance when it comes to union players. It doesn’t take long though to discover that Gareth is a real iconic sports star, particularly in Wales and the wider reaches of the other code.
I was interested in his nick name, ‘Alf’. Looking at a shot of him in action, I was reminded more of the Skull carrying the blood of Kali Ma in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ rather than the 80s kids TV character but before he gets his own back by comparing my head to a giant coffee bean, I’ll allow him to explain the story behind ‘Alf’ and also, given that he is a massive Cardiff City football fan, what the ‘Ayatollah’ try scoring celebration is all about.
“The nickname is from when I was about 10 years old. There was a TV programme called Alf, it was about this alien ginger furry cat-like thing. I had long hair as a kid, so the kids at school started calling me Alf and it stuck with me. My parents and grandparents started calling me Alf. All of a sudden, if I was on the street and people shouted Gareth I wouldn’t respond, I started answering to Alf and it became my name.
“Yes, I’m a massive Cardiff City fan and when I’m down there they’re always singing and doing the ‘Ayatollah’ and slapping their head. It came in with a Muslim guy who joined Cardiff City a few years ago. I haven’t been able to do it whilst playing at the Crusaders because when I signed for them, the first thing they asked me, with Wrexham having their own football team was, ‘are you going to do the Ayatollah whilst playing on Wrexham’s football ground?’ I had planned to do it but I wanted to buy into the whole Crusaders thing and get people through the turnstiles here so I thought I’m not going to do it if I’m going to offend people. I don’t think it would but I would rather people talk about something else than whether I was going to do the celebration or not and annoy the locals here.”
The meaning of support
I looked up the word “support” in the dictionary recently following all the drama of the football World Cup and Wayne Rooney’s outburst at the fans after their booing of the England team at the Algeria game. I giggled a little at the incident because as a sportsman I have been in that type of situation where there is objective and subjective criticism from the home fans at the performance they have just witnessed, so in a way I understand where it came from. The fact that the outburst happened at all to me shows that he really cares, but as a professional player you just can’t vent it like that. It has to be taken on the chin, particularly if you’re happy to accept the pat on the back when all is rosy.
Support:- “to undergo or endure, esp. with patience or submission; tolerate.”
Sporting pressure is fairly generic. We all get it at some point and I think England’s downfall against Algeria was in some part due to the pressure imposed after the anti-climax of the USA game. As someone who has played on the biggest international stages in the sporting world, I wondered what Gareth’s take on all this was.
“I have been watching the World Cup. I’ll tell you what is mad, because I have been a Wales fan for so many years, as a typical Welshman I always want England to lose, for the first time ever I was watching them in a pub in Chester when they were playing USA and I have never been in a pub where everyone is devastated when the other team scores. When USA scored I was like “Yes!” and all the pub around me was just staring at me (laughs), but yes, I’m into the rest of it, I love the World Cup
“The thing with Rooney – and we have both been there – as a player all you want is vocal support from the supporters and when things ain’t going well and the supporters are on your back it doubles the pressure. I think as a professional player you never want to have a go at anybody, especially your supporters because when things are going good you feel like you can walk on water but when things are bad you still have to be good to the supporters, otherwise they can make your life worse. Rooney should have kept himself to himself and his thoughts for the changing rooms. When there are so many fans, and ultimately England didn’t play that well, he’s put himself into a sitting duck situation. It is similar in every sport. England were in a position where they were expected to beat USA but you could almost feel the pressure through the TV during the Algeria game, the pressure as the clock ran down and the longer it went on the more they where tightening up the more the supporters expected a goal.”
Rugby League Barbarians
One thing Rugby League cannot claim to have over rugby union is the quality of the international game. Everyone has their opinions about this but the main focus has to be on its development. Following the recent England v France Rugby League international in Leigh, there was a suggestion about using some of the high quality overseas players currently playing in Super League to make up a team to play England in the mid-season game instead of France. This reminds me of the Barbarians in rugby union where players of various nationalities are picked to make up a team to play against other international sides. I asked Gareth about this. He knows the Barbarians situation as well as anyone, so I pitched to him the idea of a Super League Barbarians team to take on England, consisting of New Zealand, Australian, French and Welsh players currently playing in Super League whilst an England ‘A’ or Under-20s took on the French.
“I would desperately love to play for Wales in Rugby League and say that I have played international in both codes. The boys say that Wales play at small grounds with a couple of hundred people watching. When I look at it I don’t understand because I see teams like Hull and Leeds play with big crowds week in week out but can’t fill a stadium like Twickenam with 60 or 70,000 for an international game. I think that’s because in Super League the players are more associated with their clubs than they are with their country and so the support for the clubs is a lot stronger. I think it is up to the people who run the game in England to promote the game a lot more and have more games against the likes of Australia and New Zealand.
“I think the Super League Barbarians is a fantastic idea! The supporters would be able to see the players from the same clubs play against each other, like the State of Origin in Australia. It makes for a super tasty game and could create a lot of interest just from having all these great players from the same teams playing each other. People would want to come and see it. Sky TV could play a big part in advertising it. They have managed to turn darts into something amazing, so the Barbarians would be a good idea.
“Maybe the reason crowds in the England-France games are so bad is not because people don’t want to watch England, but because they think it’s just going to be a one horse race and they don’t want to pay money to see that. There’s so much commitment in club support that if you had players from clubs like Hull or Leeds playing against each other in representative games instead, you would have thousands coming to see them, as well as the rest of Super League.”
Many have questioned whether Rugby League can be truly developed in Wales given the deep roots rugby union has there. I asked Gareth about the attitudes towards the two codes in Wales and if there were any signs of hostility towards those like him who switch between the two, or if he thought any other high profile union players might follow his lead into Rugby League.
“I don’t know its weird, I think because union is such a big sport down here, people feel threatened by league coming in because they want to keep union as the main sport, so it seems to them that any players who go to league are turning their back on union.
“I think that both codes can learn from each other. I hope Wales embraces league and players can even begin to move back and forth. Maybe some are suited for league and some for union but until both codes are strong we will never know. Since I made the move a lot of union boys have spoken to me and a few of them are interested in the game and hopefully the profile of the game will rise. I have spoken to Andy Powell and he’s a big strong thing and has great qualities for league. He’s got good feet, he’s fit, can tackle and runs hard. He’s got the basic qualities of a league player. He has approached me and asked me about it and I told him he would be good at it but its up to him to try it.
“I love league so much that when people ask me about the game I give my true opinion and one to promote that it’s a marvellous game to play. I’m not going say something because I want union in Wales to be less, it’s just the truth of my experiences.
“There hasn’t been any resentment towards me but there have been people asking me the question ‘which game is the best’ and I say well, at this moment in time, I’m enjoying what I’m doing in league but then they’ll say to me you’re only saying that because you’re playing it now, if you were still playing union it would have been different. So it is tough but I’m hoping that’s just some people being a little bit small minded. I’m hoping that players would understand that if they were to play and watch and understand the sport then I am sure they would understand why I am enjoying it more than my final days in union.”
Gareth Thomas was set to finish his playing career as a union legend and could have walked into a media or coaching job, so why at the age of 35 did he decide to take a risk in doing something he’s never done before?
“I was going to stay with the Blues for one more year or I could have gone into coaching and the media but Brian Noble and Iestyn Harris rang me and I still had the appetite to play. Everyone after playing union for Wales goes into coaching or media and I wanted to do something different. I still had a hunger but I wanted a fresh challenge. I had done rugby union all my life and I wanted something that was going to test me and get me my mojo back for the game and I thought what better challenge than something I had never done before. I wanted to challenge myself one last time. Some people would say what a stupid time to do it, you’re 35, you have got a big career behind you, why would you want to risk doing something that could make you look like a clown, but all my life I have enjoyed a challenge and doing this at 35 could make me feel like an 18 year old again. To be honest that’s what it has done for me. I feel like I have something to prove again. I have come into the game with a reputation in union, not league so I have to try and prove to people that I am good enough and deserve the jersey I’m playing in.
“I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet after playing but I do know that by playing league, if I do go into coaching it will make me a better coach because if I go back into union I know I would have learnt a hell of a lot from league that I think union could benefit from. I don’t think I would ever qualify to be a Rugby League coach, even if I played for another three or four years so if I did coach it would be back in union.
“I started union early as a kid, that’s what everyone does around here as soon as you can tie your shoe laces your playing union. All I ever knew as a kid was union, it has given me a fantastic life and I love the game, but I love playing league at this moment in time so much. There are so many different positions and things I would like to try in league that if it had been as big as union it would have had a massive pull on me because it’s great to be involved in something so fast and at a constant speed for 80 minutes it’s a real addictive thing to be a part of. It would have definitely had a big pull, but whether it would have been bigger than union I don’t know because the people down here eat and breathe union.
“We used to watch Rugby League as a family because my family were rugby fans, league or union, so we used to watch the sport a lot. I remember when Jonathan Davies, Scott Gibbs and Scott Quinnell left union for league and we always watched it in Wales, but never super-supported it because people have always supported the union team. I watched it but never thought I would ever play it. When those guys went it upped the profile of league big time in Wales. It stayed a big sport in Wales because we had the Crusaders where I’m from last year and it’s always been a well known sport down here in South Wales.”
No room for abuse
A few weeks ago I was interviewed by an old acquaintance from the past who was doing an official study on institutional racism in Rugby League. I thought it was odd and I was a little annoyed. I can honestly say I have never been subject to, or witnessed, any kind of abuse whilst playing. To clutch at straws, someone once shouted ‘it’s Al-Qaeda’ when I had the massive beard in 2007 and I can tell you the staff at the ground dealt with it very swiftly, despite me personally finding it very amusing. One thing we can say, in my opinion, is that our game is 100% family orientated and gets 10 out of 10 for keeping it that way.
In some ways though, Gareth brought something new and rare to the game, being the first – which I know of – openly homosexual person to play professional Rugby League in this country. In one particular game he was subject to homophobic abuse. I believe we are not commissioned to judge each other and there is no room for abuse in life. Given that this was all relatively new to the game and needed dealing with in its infancy I wondered where this incident had gone and how Gareth felt about it.
“You know what, in fairness, when the abuse happened I didn’t think too much of it but after the game I was upset and felt a little embarrassed. The RFL have come in and there was a hearing which has just been adjourned. There’s something going to be done about it so I thought ‘good on them’.
A family sport
“Something that really impressed me in my first game in Super League was that before the game it came over the tannoy that Rugby League is a family sport and they won’t tolerate any abuse of any players of any sort and if there is you will be ejected from the ground. So what I thought was it’s real good, as far as I know I am the only gay person playing the sport for the moment, so when people sign up to the agreement that there isn’t going to be any abuse I hope there isn’t going to be. So it’s good that it happened in one way, because by signing up to this they proved that they didn’t just do it for the sake of it, they’re saying that if it is there, we are going to stamp it out and fair play to Rugby League for that.
“Hopefully that makes it easier if there’s another gay player that comes through after myself. Life would be easier for him because something was done when the abuse happened to me and it hopefully won’t happen again. I feel safe, I really do, I feel safe playing Rugby League because I do think that the governing bodies in Rugby League are standing up and doing something about it. It’s a big sport on TV with big crowds and it would give a bad name to the sport if people where allowed to get away with racial and sexual abuse so I feel like I’m in a safe sport and that’s one of the reasons I am enjoying it too.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable about it at all, because when it came out I knew that this is how it was going to be and that’s part of the reason I did it. I want to be able to live my life as I should but I want to make it comfortable for people if there are any others after me if they want to carry on with sport and the fact that they’re gay won’t be an issue because I have come through and answered all the questions and taken all the flak or shown the way, for want of a better word.”