Gareth Thomas no longer 'ticking bomb' after his honesty over sexuality

WITH nearly 20 years of top-level rugby union behind him, Gareth Thomas proved the mettle that exists within the rugged Welshman when he left himself open to new kinds of humiliation on two fronts just a few months ago.

• Gareth Thomas won the 2005 Heineken Cup with Toulouse at Murrayfield and is back at the venue today, this time for rugby league. Picture: Getty

After retiring from union at the age of 35, he had been given the opportunity to try the 13-a-side league code with the new Welsh team, the Celtic Crusaders, and he grasped it. But his personal life had also come to a difficult crossroads at the end of last year, one where he felt the time had come for him to be honest with the wider public and 'come out' as gay.

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He had fought against feelings that he might 'be different' from around his late teens, married his long-term sweetheart, Jemma, went through the pain of three miscarriages with her and also coped with a mini-stroke after appearing on television to defend Wales players during a revolt against the then Welsh management, having become of the most successful Wales players and captains in recent times.

In 2006-07, when playing with Toulouse in France he told Jemma, his family and team-mates he had accepted he was gay and despite the couple remaining very close, and Jemma speaking in glowing terms about the husband he was and the sympathy she felt for him, their divorce was agreed and as it was being finalised, he decided to come out in December.

There are, undoubtedly, many gay men involved in sport at varying levels, but it remains rare for any to make their sexual preference public, so Thomas walked into a storm of worldwide media attention. Questions were thrown at him from all sides, support and criticism, and hurtful ignorance; talk shows on TV and radio debated whether he was right to come out, whether it would have a positive or negative effect on others and help gay youngsters who he encouraged to contact the NSPCC helpline, while he told his story in interviews.

And then he took to the rugby league pitch and ... whack! He felt the full force of an early tackle and less than half an hour into his first appearance in the 13-man code, his debut was over in a flash; several, regular flashes actually, as he coped with the symptoms of severe concussion for the next week or so. That was just over a month ago, and now, four games on, 'Alfie', as he is known, is preparing to kick off the RFL's 'Magic Weekend' today on his return to Murrayfield and the scene of many successes in a Cardiff, Toulouse and Wales rugby union jersey, and the odd defeat.

"It has been quite a few months," he said yesterday, with more than a hint of understatement. "It has been quite a few years really, but I do feel better now for being open about it and I think getting to grips with league in many ways has been as much of a challenge as anything I've faced.

"I have said that I felt like I was a ticking bomb, trying to keep it all inside and ignoring feelings that I had, or thought I had, but didn't want to believe it. It does eat you up and I've lived with, and played with it, for all of my rugby career. You feel pretty alone."

Thomas enjoyed a wonderful 2005 with Grand Slam winners Wales and Toulouse, who became Heineken Cup champions and he was also made captain of the British and Irish Lions. But that crumbled amid bitter acrimony within the Welsh camp the following year and he admitted he even considered suicide over his sporting and personal situation. But, instead, he opted to reveal his feelings to Jemma and found a strong source of comfort. He retired from the Test arena in 2007 but continued to play for Cardiff until the start of this year – his last game up here was in defeat to Edinburgh at Murrayfield in January. He had never played or considered rugby league until the Crusaders came calling in February, but admits he now feels refreshed by the change of scene.

He laughs about his painful debut in a warm way that suggests the whack he received was almost welcoming, the kind of test he was more comfortable with, on the field, rather than those faced in previous weeks off it. He is relishing helping the lowly-ranked Crusaders, now under the control of former GB coach Brian Noble, defy the odds and win respect for the 13-a-side code in Wales.

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"I have really enjoyed it. League is a different game and you've got to be fitter. As a winger in union you could get away with switching off for five minutes at times because the action was so far away from you, kept with the forwards or whatever, but you can't in this game. I can make 14 or 15 carries with the ball in one game, whereas sometimes I'd not do that in a whole Six Nations. Though if you spoke to forwards in union maybe they'd tell you it was a bit different for them.

"League is very technical as well, so takes a bit of getting used to, but I'm starting to get to grips with it. I think it's more exciting than union at the moment. I love union and always will, but it has become a bit boring with the rules or interpretations changing every year. The laws favour defences now in union and there's not the opportunity to attack with the flair we used to.

"There is also so much pressure on teams not to lose and it means that, as players, you are frightened to let your team-mates or club down by taking risks, and that's why you're seeing so much kicking. It goes in cycles though and I think the attacking talents in union will come through again.

"But in league you get six chances to get a good attack going, instead of just one before you're tackled or maybe lose the ball in union, and that's why I think there are more chances to see attacking rugby."

His Crusaders team launch this weekend's seven-match feast of rugby by facing the Bradford Bulls, who are currently six places above them in the league, up in fifth spot and looking to make up ground on leaders and old rivals Wigan, who play tomorrow against the fourth-placed Huddersfield Giants.

Thomas, who has also launched a new sports PR and management company, Distinct, with fellow Wales cap Gareth Williams and businessman Emanuele Palladino, added: "It's not easy because the Crusaders are the underdogs most weekends, but I like the 'backs-to-the-wall' challenge. We have a great squad of guys, good coaches and a real desire to prove ourselves.

"It was like that with Wales often as well, especially when you played against New Zealand, Australia, even England, and it gets you going.

"I am not unhappy to talk about what I have gone through because every time I do and I share my experiences then it might just play a little part in helping inspire kids who feel isolated to take up sport, or to keep at it, and help those around perhaps accept them for what they are and what they bring.

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"But right now I'm still enjoying playing and challenging myself on the pitch. I'm really looking forward to coming back to Murrayfield seeing if we can make up for a poor performance last week and give Bradford a game in one of the best stadiums in the world. This is what you play sport for isn't it?"