So the last week saw Crusaders finally seal the deal for Union convert Gareth Thomas, making him arguably the club’s biggest ever signing.
Widely-regarded as one of the best rugby players to come out of Wales in a long time, ‘Alfie’, as he’s affectionately known, has gone on to notch up a hundred caps for his country in 12 years of committed service.
His credentials are almost faultless; a better than 1 in 3 try scoring record in the ever increasingly defence orientated International Rugby Union scene, skippering Wales to a 6 Nations Grand Slam, a Heineken Cup winner with Toulouse and a captaining 3 British and Irish Lions tests in New Zealand. Hardly a bad CV!
Predominately playing over the back three positions and also in the centres for all of his Union career, it will be interesting to see where and how the Crusaders will utilise his abundant talents.
The move looks a massive coup for the Crusaders; they now have THAT big name Welsh player that people can look up to and follow. The backroom staff and men in the boardroom have certainly worked on it for a while and done their homework, they know that Thomas can ultimately put draw in more and more followers to Wrexham, building on and enhancing the new image of the club.
Obviously it’s all well and good having the benefits off the pitch, but Brian Noble and his coaching team will need to see that expected impact on the pitch too. And it’s not like the Crusaders have performed that badly so far, bar a couple of games against Wigan and Warrington. They gave Leeds a great game to kick off the season, won away at fellow wooden spoon contenders Salford and then followed that up with a victory of a reinvigorated Hull side. The team have surprised a lot of sceptics so far this campaign.
Personally I think the key to Thomas’ success will be the position in which he plays. A lot has been said about the quicker nature of League maybe taking its toll due to his age, he will be 36 in July, but fellow League convert Jonathan Davies had no such fears as he told BBC’s Super League Show, “He [Thomas] is a fit, strong guy, so the physicality of the game won’t be a problem for him”. And I think it’s difficult to deny the fact that either Centre could possibly be his best suited position within the Crusaders line-up. He is much in the mould of a Keith Senior if you look at what he brings to the able; he is strong, still has a yard of pace, has an excellent Rugby brain and can produce that telling blow to a side during a game. His useful adaptability means that if a spell at Centre doesn’t work then he can always try a new position within a side whether it be on the Wing, as a Full-back or more tellingly in the Second Row.
The pack looks an increasingly viable position for Thomas, given his well-documented age and the centres that the Crusaders already have within their ranks. Vince Mellars has impressed since his arrival from Australia and Tony Martin looks sure to be a shrewd signing by Noble and his team. Thomas could be increasingly useful in the pack providing those trademark runs, whilst able to play in the fringes to showcase his talents as Union back-line player. Crucially however he will be able to receive the bonus of the interchange bench to adjust to the pace of the game.
Wherever Thomas does finally settle into the team, it seems likely that he will be eased into the game from the bench. The man is effectively learning a whole new sport from scratch, so the pockets of game time coupled with the ‘two-week crash course’ the Crusaders have prepared for Thomas, should ease him into the Super League scene gradually.
When the facts are looked at, Thomas was pretty much made to play Rugby League, the question is has he left it a little too late in the day to cross codes. The phrase ‘Only time will tell’ springs immeadiately to mind.