When Henry Thomas was included in Warren Gatland’s training squad for the Rugby World Cup, there were many who questioned how on earth a former England prop could represent Wales.
But the truth is you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who has sacrificed more to play for Wales than the 31-year-old, who won seven England caps – the last of which came in 2014 at Eden Park against the All Blacks .
Thomas was making his living playing for reigning French champions Montpellier just three weeks ago, but a phone call from Wales forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys turned his world upside down.
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“Jonathan Humphreys called me last Wednesday,” Thomas told WalesOnline in his first interview since the shock selection.
“He asked me if I would like to play for Wales at the World Cup if I was selected and I immediately said yes because it’s not an opportunity you turn down.
“He said we will have a final selection meeting on Monday and your name is in the mix.
“After practice on Monday, he left me a voicemail and told me to call him, so I did.
“He said the lineup is about to be announced and you’re in.”
For the majority of players, a call-up to an international team would evoke feelings of happiness and even ecstasy.
Thomas felt both, but unlike most other players, the choice to play Test rugby came with some harsh consequences.
“I immediately called my parents and my dad managed to stay pretty neutral even though he was incredibly excited about the whole thing,” Thomas said.
“It took me a while to really settle in because I knew I had to make a decision. After my conversation with Jonathan Humphreys the previous week, Philippe Saint-Andre, Montpellier’s director of rugby, had heard from someone else that it was a possibility.
“He made it clear to me from the start that if I was to go with Wales to the World Cup it would be a change in the terms of my contract and I would have to leave Montpellier.
“I was incredibly excited about the opportunity, but I knew a decision had to be made and I had to figure out what my position was in the team.
“They (Wales) obviously couldn’t make any guarantees that I would go through the training camp, but I made the decision to go with Wales.
“Filipe gave me until the end of the week to make a decision and I had to take everything into account, but I chose Wales.
“Now I won’t be at Montpellier next season, which is difficult because I would have liked to do both, but it didn’t work out.
“They need players for the World Cup and if I’m out it makes things confusing.
“I don’t have a club at the moment but I’ll leave that to my agent to try and work something out for next season.
“My focus is to give absolutely everything during the summer training camps and prove to everyone that I deserve to be there.
“I’m sure there are some skeptical players and fans who will question my reasons for being there, but I’m going to show my coaches and future teammates that I’m committed and I’m here for the right reasons.”
Thomas is one of a number of players who have benefited from the recent change in World Rugby’s eligibility criteria.
Players are now allowed to transfer to other nations after a three-year waiting period if the person in question, their parents or grandparents were born there.
In Thomas’s case, he is eligible for Wales thanks to his father Nigel, who hails from Port Tennant, in Swansea.
Despite growing up in England, Thomas has always had a strong affinity for Wales.
“My father was a huge influence on my life,” he said.
“Especially when I was a kid, my dad used to take me to a lot of Wales games, so I definitely had some disagreements.
“But obviously I was brought up and went to school in England, so when I became a teenager I fell into the England way.
“I’m not going to lie, I was rooting for England from there. I don’t want to sound like a lost Welshman who ended up in England.
“I’m half Welsh but I grew up in England and that’s it.
“My dad tried to push me down the Welsh rugby paths when I was younger and I went to the Welsh Exiles training camps in London and Newport.
“It didn’t work out then because I was part of Bristol’s junior academy with Taulupe Faletau. I was in the England system so I ended up going with them, but I’ve always had a strong affinity for Wales and I’m 100% in the Wales corner now.”
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There are many who are far from happy with World Rugby’s eligibility laws, insisting that a player should only represent the country of their birth and certainly not be allowed to change.
As always, the majority of Wales supporters supported Gatland’s decision to include Thomas in his squad, understanding that this is a professional game, while appreciating the many players who hold dual citizenship thanks to parents born in different countries.
Still, that hasn’t stopped a vocal minority from questioning his selection, but Thomas is confident he will prove his commitment to Wales in the coming months.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion, that’s their prerogative,” he said.
“The only way I can prove myself to them is by playing, if I get the chance to wear the red shirt.
“I saw first-hand the passion of the Welsh on game day.
“I have my Welsh roots and my Welsh family. I am ineligible from some distant great-great-great-grandparent.
“I remember my dad watching me play against Wales for England and I’ve never seen him so torn up in my life.
“He didn’t want England to win, he couldn’t bring himself to back me against Wales!
“I have to show people how committed I am every day after I link up with the team in training camps.
“If I have a chance to go to the next stage, it depends on what people see on the pitch.
It’s not arguable to say that Wales have struggled in the front five in recent seasons, with Gatland admitting as much this week.
Tighthead prop is an area where Wales is worn out. Thomas Francis has done a great job since being drafted out of obscurity in 2015, while Dylan Lewis gives them dynamism around the park but much-needed dominance in the race.
Cardiff prop Keiron Asirati showed promise, setting up a powerful Sale Sharks fightback in the Challenge Cup recently, while the jury is out on his club-mate Will Davies-King.
All things considered, the selection of Thomas is a shrewd move by Gatland. Here is a man who rose to an extremely high level in the Gallagher Premiership for both Sale Sharks and Bath while helping Montpellier win the Top 14 last season.
Indeed, had it not been for a string of injuries, he would surely have won more than seven caps for England.
“Playing in the Top 14, my standard game is paramount,” he said when asked what his difference was.
“The league is full of massive guys and massive packages. To get the respect as a prop and to be picked in the first place, you have to have a strong game, especially for a side with title ambitions like Montpellier.
“For me throughout my career, my differentiator has been playing with ball in hand and having skills that a lot of other props don’t have.
“As I’ve gotten older and matured as a player, I know how important set balls, scrums and mauls are.
“During my time in the Top 14, I put a lot more emphasis on my scrums and that has really improved.
“I think playing in the Top 14 the last couple of years I’ve proven how strong a scrum-half I am.
“I’m not the biggest tight end and scrummaging was an area of my game I really had to work hard on as a youngster, but I proved a lot of people wrong in the Top 14 with how aggressive a scrummaker I am.
“I back myself to pick on anyone.
“For years my carrying the ball was my difference but I had to adapt my game in France because the teams are much more direct than I was used to playing in the Premiership.”
Wales have endured a turbulent period over the past few years, losing home Tests to Italy and Georgia that cost former coach Wayne Pivac his job as they finished a disappointing fifth in the Six Nations.
While Thomas respects the fact that he is yet to link up with the squad, he truly believes Wales have the quality of personnel to turn their fortunes around at the World Cup.
“I think Wales have the players to compete with, 100 per cent,” he said.
“The expectations won’t be as high from the outside, but I imagine there will be a lot of confidence in the camp.
“Wales teams have been written off in the past, but they have turned up at the World Cup.
“There is a very good core in this team and a good mix of experience and youth.
“I haven’t been in camp yet but I’m sure we’ll put in the effort and it will be an exciting World Cup.”
“I spent years playing with Rhys Priestland, Luke Charteris and Paul James at Bath and they told me how brutal those training camps were. I look forward to it.
“If we want to compete at this World Cup, which I think we will, those are the building blocks you have to put in place.
“We should be one of the strongest teams in the competition.
“It’s going to be terrible, but if you’re not at least half as excited about it, you’re probably not in the right place.”
As Thomas will be leaving Montpellier, according to the Professional Rugby Board’s selection criteria, he will have to join a Welsh region if he wants to play for Wales after already being selected in a squad.
“Of course it’s something I will definitely look at,” he said when asked if he would join a Welsh region.
“Making the decision to leave Montpellier was difficult because I loved living there and playing for such a special club, but now I have to pack my bags and go back to the UK.
“I will make a decision in due course, but I just have to focus on showing my best in the training camps.
“I will be under huge pressure because I will be without a club until then.
“The stakes are very high for me and I will do my best to get to this World Cup.”
“My mentality will be that I want this and I need this, but everyone will fight tooth and nail to make sure they are in the final squad.”
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