Crusaders and Wales dual-code star Gareth Thomas is hoping that Wales can defy the odds on Saturday and beat France in the deciding game of the Alitalia European Cup in Albi and qualify for the 2011 Four Nations.
Wales and France have both won their first two group matches against Scotland and Ireland to put them into this winner takes all clash, one of the most important games in Wales Rugby League’s history.
But Thomas knows that they will have it all to do as they go into an intimidating atmosphere over the channel.
“We’re in this competition to win and finish top of the pile,” he said. “The France game is so important to us and it’ll be massive for Wales if we win. To qualify for the Four Nations is a massive carrot.
“The odds are stacked against us and in France’s favour,” he continued. “I don’t really understand why they had all their games at home and it’s nice for them, but the chance of playing against England, New Zealand and Australia is mouth-watering as a player and it’d do wonders for Rugby League in Wales. Going there will make for a fiery encounter.”
After hammering Scotland 60-22, Wales only sneaked a 31-30 win over Ireland in Neath last Sunday, but Thomas thinks that the closeness of the win was better for them than racking up another high score.
“The win over Ireland was so good,” he said. “I think when you play professional sport and you dig in for each other and get a close win then there’s a better camaraderie after that then beating someone by 50 or 60 points.
“You all look each other in the eyes and know that we’ve dug in for each other, and that’s what we need when we go to France. They’re on their home turf, it’s going to be a big crowd and a hostile environment and we can take a lot from the Ireland game into preparing this week. It’s like a movie setting as it’s winner takes all.”
Thomas – one of the highest profile sportsmen in sport at present – added, “We showed a lot of character to beat Ireland as they came out with nothing to lose and showed that they’re a very expansive side. The results the weekend before put the pressure on us but we dealt with it really well. We showed true character to come from behind and win, especially when you’re at home as you want to please the crowd.”
Thomas was happy to return to South Wales to play his first game there in the 13-man code, at a ground he’d played at many times in rugby union and a mere 20 miles from where he grew up.
“It’s good to play for Crusaders in Wrexham but I’m a South Wales boy,” he said. “It was fantastic to return here and play for my country as my family were able to be here. South Wales will always be my home and it was a special occasion to me. I even went back to my mam’s for a cup of tea afterwards, what could be better.”
Injury hampered the end of his season in 2010 with Crusaders and he missed the final three months of the Super League campaign. But to be fit to play for Wales was his number one priority as he sees it as the pinnacle of the sport.
“I’m still kind of playing on one leg and shouldn’t really be back,” he admits. “But the chance of playing for Wales was too good to miss. We’ve one more game this weekend then I’ve a couple of weeks off before we start pre-season with the Crusaders for the 2011 Super League so I’ll use that time to rest up and get fresh for it.”