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Thomas enjoying new-found love for rugby as mentor to the next generation

Pathway | 18th May 2021

During the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup opener against Ospreys, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso proudly stepped onto the Liberty Stadium turf in the second half to make his debut for Cardiff Blues.

It was a proud moment for the former Corpus Christi High School pupil, as he wrote the next chapter of his rugby journey with his home town club. Having grown a love for the game at school, he joined Rumney RFC and played representative rugby with Cardiff Schools.

Next up came age grade recognition with Cardiff Blues and Wales, and he continued to climb the ladder, earning a professional deal with the club earlier this season.

The exciting utility back is the latest in a long-ling of homegrown talent to have followed the pathway and come through the ranks at Cardiff Arms Park.

Of course, there are a number of influential figures who play their part in a player’s journey from junior rugby to senior professionals. 

These include the dedicated, hard-working team of volunteers at Cardiff Blues’ age grade sides, who form a strong, invaluable core to the pathway as the region’s promising youngsters work their way through the system.

Among them is former Cardiff and Wales full back, Justin Thomas, who admits his role with Cardiff Blues under-18 has given him a new-found love for the game.

“When I retired from playing, I had a young family at the time and the right thing to do was take a step back from the game, get into my work as a teacher and be able to spend time with the family,” explains the nine-times capped international.

“To be honest, I’d had enough of rugby and decided to take a step away to pursue a career as a teacher. I’d had a handful of offers to go into coaching, but it wasn’t right for me at the time.

“During the last few years of my playing career I’d spent a lot of time on the Sevens circuit, which meant spending a lot of time away from family and friends.

“So after retiring, I mainly played and coached cricket. I loved it but also found that I didn’t have the time to commit to a similar role within rugby.

“However, my son, Rhys, played rugby growing up and eventually got selected to play for Pontypridd Schools. I was taking him back and forth to training sessions during the week, and that’s how I caught the bug for coaching rugby.

“When he got to 15 years old, and my daughter was 13, it was a good time for me to get back involved.”

In his playing days, Thomas won nine caps for Wales, having initially earned a call-up while playing for Cardiff Met. He also had stints with Llanelli, Newport, Caerphilly and Cross Keys and featured for Barbarians.

However, one of his most famous moments in the Blue and Black came in the 1997 Welsh Cup final. Thomas crossing for a crucial second half score as Cardiff steered to victory over a physical Swansea outfit in the final game played at the old National Stadium.

Now Thomas wants to use the experiences and lessons he learnt from his playing days and pass them onto the next generation of Arms Park heroes, and the most important aspect above all is finding an enjoyment and passion for the sport.

“Coming in as someone who played in the early days of the professional game, it’s worked well in terms of finding the balance between giving these young people an understanding of structure while also giving them the freedom to play what’s in front of them,” adds Thomas.

“That’s been really important because it allows them to paint their own picture while learning new skills and it’s been really positive.

“I remember going through times in my career where I didn’t enjoy the game. It was overly-structured and there was no enjoyment in playing or training.

“I can bring that experience with me into the age grade rugby environment. Ultimately, the key thing for any player, whatever level they play at, is enjoyment and that’s crucial for boys at this age. If they don’t enjoy it, they won’t play.

“By having that enjoyment, while continuing to be challenged, they will put in the extra hours of work in away from the club. That’s the difference when it comes to very good players, the ones who do the extra works always tend to go further in the game.

“While I wasn’t a professional player during the regional era, I have hopefully brought a different viewpoint for these boys and offer my advice from my experiences as a young player coming through the ranks in Wales.

“My ethos and responsibilities as a coach is to ensure the enjoyment is there and that I give these boys the right skills to go on the pitch and play well in their position.

“Hopefully I’m able to offer a different angle, which focuses on developing units of play across the pitch rather than particular detailed set structures.

“If you can up-skill those units and help them make good decisions in different scenarios, then it comes together as a jigsaw puzzle to form a team performance.

“It’s worked really well for us. We had the likes of Aled James and Craig Everett, who were able to bring the structures down from senior and academy level, implement them into the under-18 side and then it was my role to find the balance which helps us execute the pictures that are put in front of us. It’s been a great learning curve for me.”

The under-18 coach also hopes his background in teaching will be a benefit as he looks to develop the individuals in the squad, both as rugby players and people.

Thomas says he’s thriving from being a part of the team of volunteers 

“One of key things I’ve taken from teaching is the importance of investing in people. If you give them challenges and show that you’re investing time and effort into them, they’ll enjoy it more,” said Thomas.

“It has to be fun and enjoyable if they’re to put their own time, effort and work into the role.

“The great thing about being part of the age grade set up is that we’re all volunteer coaches giving up our time, but it’s a fun and enjoyable experience.

“When you’re coaching 16 and 17 year olds, you’ll always face challenges and have characters that need to be moulded. It’s no different to the challenge I’d face as a parent or a teacher.

“It’s not all about the rugby here. We want to invest in these boys as individuals, find out what makes them tick and find out about their ambitions both within rugby and away from the game.

“The most important thing for me has been the opportunity to build relationships with players, coaches and parents. The more you learn about them as a person away from the environment, the easier it is to develop them and build relationships on the pitch.

“The reality is that not all of these boys will go on to become professional rugby players. In some cases a successful story would be them going on to play Championship rugby for their local club, while with others they have the potential to go right through the pathway and play for the senior side.

“You look at Immanuel, for example, and what a great story that is. Everyone wants to follow his lead, but there are only a limited amount of positions in Wales’ professional clubs.

“We want to play our part in helping their rugby futures, whether that’s here at Cardiff Blues or elsewhere. The key thing is giving them the best opportunity to express themselves and enjoy their rugby at age grade level and help them through the process.”

Reflecting on his time at the Arms Park as a player, Thomas still has fond memories of wearing the famous Blue and Black jersey, and hopes some of the aspiring youngsters he now works with will have an opportunity to create their own memories in the future.

“The Welsh Cup final was definitely up there for me,” recalls the former full back. 

“It was a bit of a funny day. It was meant to be nice but it actually chucked it down. We’d all planned to wear mouldies, but had to rush around to find our studded boots.

“It was a great occasion, one of the last cup finals played in front of a large crowd and that was definitely one of the highlights.

“But one of the best thing for me was playing European rugby with the club, and the places we went to.

“I remember being out in Toulouse, and during the warm-ups their fans behind the posts were chucking flares and coins at me.

“You also had the semi final in Brive in 1997, where the whole village had to come out the night before to clear a foot of snow off the pitch. We were told the game was off on the Friday, but it was back on by the Saturday morning.

“There was something special about those games. Big games against Bath, with Nigel Walker scoring the famous try, and even the ‘rebel’ season as well.

“We played against the English clubs that season and I’d love that to come back. The supporters and players loved it.”

This article originally featured in the Cardiff Blues official matchday programme for the recent Rainbow Cup clash against Dragons Rugby. All programmes are available digitally, for free, and in the most recent edition you can read more exclusive content including a chat with British and Irish Lion, Josh Adams, Olly Robinson revisits a classic derby encounter and Rhys Gill tells us about his new ventures off the field. Available to read NOW!