Crusaders, Gareth Thomas: a partnership of convenience?

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playpic-thomas-crusaders.jpgA press conference tomorrow is likely to reveal that Welsh rugby union’s most capped player will switch allegiance to the league game; this is not good news for either code. Union – temporarily at least – loses a legend to the rival code; whilst league … well what can you think about a code that is so hungry for ‘star’ quality that is must raid the oddments bin of a rival sport?

According to his biography on the Cardiff Blues website, Gareth Thomas has made 17 appearances for the club this season, scoring two tries. But it’s unlikely to be his rugby prowess that has persuaded the Crusaders to invest in an 18-month contract for the Welsh RU legend. Not at 35-years of age it’s not anyway.

Ten-years ago, 5-years ago even, this could have been a massive capture for rugby league; but now? Thomas’s age and lack of league experience appear to indicate that this signing owes more to the fledgeling engage Super League club’s marketing needs than any football imperatives.

With an impressive sell-out for their debut game at Wrexham, plus two solid league wins under their belt this season the Crusaders are already looking a more stable organisation. With Thomas on board their media profile is likely to increase – at least in the short term – and the marketing department must be hoping they can capitalise on that to bring in much needed revenue.

After debuting for Wales against Japan in 1995, Thomas gained his 100th international cap against Fiji in the 2007 World Cup, but there aren’t many 35-year old rugby league players, period – let alone players of that age making their code debuts. So it’s hard to see even a player of Thomas’s undoubted pedigree making more than a marginal impact over an 18-month league career.

I’d put this signing somewhere on a par with Andy Farrell’s departure to Saracens at the fag-end of an epic league career; let’s hope for the Crusaders sake that Thomas can make more of a impact in Wrexham than Farrell managed in an injury bedevilled spell at Watford though. Thomas is 10-months older than the now retired Farrell.

If Thomas can be persuaded that his long term future remains in the league code, albeit in a back room commercial capacity, then this may yet be a good signing for the Crusaders and possibly for league too. The sport needs someone with his contacts, insight and charisma if it is to make the necessary inroads into Welsh sporting psyche. Thomas certainly came across as an eloquent and intelligent communicator during the media exposure that followed his becoming the first actively-playing professional rugby union player to declare themselves gay.

Sceptical as we are about the role Thomas can play on the field, rugby league as a whole should welcome someone with those skills and that strength of character with open arms. If only because it means – perhaps – that finally we can move on from Jonathon Davies.