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The Wales Grand Slam-winner who ended up in America after being squeezed out

Not all who wander are lost, according to the old adage, and Joe Thomas is proof of the aphorism’s great merit.

The Wales U20s Grand Slam winner from 2016 is back home in Wales for now after a season in America playing for Houston SaberCats. He is contracted for another campaign but Major League Rugby doesn’t restart until early in 2022, so Thomas has time to recharge.

He wanted a life experience after a challenging couple of years which saw him become a casualty of budgetary cuts at the Ospreys, then bank time in New Zealand with the Otorohanga club before resurfacing at Leicester Tigers and then spend time at the Dragons.

Read more:Talented youngster forced to exit Welsh rugby

But it’s been his time in the States that’s been eye-opening. “It’s been awesome from a life experience point of view,” he said.

“Results on the pitch weren’t as great as we might have hoped, but in terms of the weather, the travelling, the people, it was all amazing.

“I was supposed to be out there for a full five months, but given the Covid situation, my visa took a bit of time to get sorted and I actually spent just the four months there.

“You have a rugby visa in America, so once the season is done you can’t really stay out there to work.

“So I’ve come back now, to see my family for a few months until I find out what’s happening for next season.”

Rewind three years and Thomas was considered a youngster to Welsh rugby youngster to watch.

He’d been part of the Wales U20s Grand Slam team coached by Jason Strange and containing names such as Adam Beard, Dillon Lewis, Owen Watkin, Keelan Giles, Harrison Keddie, Shane Lewis-Hughes and Dan Jones.

When Scott Williams picked up an injury shortly after joining the Ospreys, their then coach Allen Clarke name-checked Thomas as a potential frontline replacement.

But belt-tightening at the region saw the centre squeezed from the squad at the end of the season.



Joe Thomas (centre) with Otorohanga team

To his credit, he doesn’t look back, saying: “I’ve never really been bitter about what happened.

“It was nothing personal.

“It’s professional sport. You can’t hold grudges and I think the experience has made me a better person and a better player.

“I don’t resent or regret anything.

“I’ve always given a hundred percent and I always think that if something isn’t meant to be, it’s not meant to be.”

Life in America has been different in many ways.

For a start there’s the travelling. When Thomas spent time with Aberavon earlier in his career, the league routine potentially involved a game at the Talbot Athletic Ground one week, a trip a few miles down the road to face Swansea at St Helen’s the next, or maybe across the M4 to Newport.

Compared to such comfortable local cosiness, treks in Major League Rugby are veritable space flights.

“It is a bit different,” Thomas laughed.

“There are two conferences, east and west, and we travelled pretty much around America, with the away games could be quite a hike. The Seattle game saw us travel from the border of America and Mexico to the border of America and Canada. That’s a four-and-half-hour flight covering around 2,000 miles.

“But it’s all part of the experience, as is the weather, which can border on the ridiculous.

“When it came to June, we’d have to start training at 6am. That was the only time we could run around, because the heat was 34 degrees with the humidity making it feel eight to 10 degrees hotter again.

“But the people were really welcoming.

“They were friendly, never let me want for anything and went out of their way to make me feel at home.”

Despite being so far from home, the Morriston Comprehensive School product who came through the Neath and Port Talbot College system encountered a couple of familiar faces on the American rugby scene.

“I was getting ready for a team run when I heard a Welsh accent saying: ‘All right, Joe.’

“It was Huw Bevan, the former Ospreys conditioning coach. He’s head of high performance in USA rugby now and it was good to chat with him.

“It was also nice to hear a Welsh accent.

“You are with boys from all around the world and up until that point I seemed to be the only Welsh person on the scene.

“Then there was Allen Clarke, one of my former coaches at the Ospreys.

“He’s coaching Seattle Seawolves and I briefly caught up with him for five minutes at the end of our game with them.

“He seems to be enjoying it and the people there appear to be embracing him. Seattle were struggling a bit at the start of the season, but they started to pick up wins towards the end, so I think the people there appreciated that.

“The standard of the rugby in the league is generally good.

“You are playing against some boys who have played in World Cups and stuff. They are players with real experience.”

Sabercats will be under a new coaching regime next season. “Heyneke Meyer, the ex-South Africa coach, is taking over, so I’m waiting for confirmation on how he’ll see his squad,” said Thomas.

“New coaches sometimes want to bring in their own personnel.

“I signed a deal for two years with the option of another year, but we’ll see what happens.

“In the meantime, after a short break, I hope to get down to Aberavon.

“I’ve spoken to their coach Jason Hyatt and he’s said I’m more than welcome to train with them and perhaps help out. That way I can keep fresh, keep fit and keep my skills up, just until I know what’s going on.

“They are a great club, on and off the field, with supporters, coaches and players who are second to none.”

Thomas was delighted to see his old Ospreys pal Adam Beard featuring for the Lions.

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“I wasn’t at all surprised Adam made the tour,” he said.

“To be honest, I thought he should have been in the squad from the beginning.

“He has the size, is good in the set-pieces and he can play, with good hands.

“If Justin Tipuric is one of the best footballing flankers out there, Adam is one of the best footballing second rows.

“You watch him in the Lions games, the angles he was running, knowing when to carry and when to pass. He has a footballing mind.

“Players from the same teams go in different directions.

“With that Wales U20s side, you see Adam Beard flying with the Lions, I’ve explored different avenues in different countries. The dream is always to play at the highest level, but sometimes it’s just not meant to be and you just have to make the best of your circumstances.

“My guess is there’s still plenty to come from Keelan.

“He may have had a couple of bad injuries but if he can have a bit of luck on that front I still think he can reach the heights.

“He’s lightning quick but solid as well, someone who hits hard for his size. He just needs some good fortune.”

Every player needs good fortune.

But there’s a lot to be said for living in the moment, too.

That is what Thomas is doing with his career now, and it’s why he’s been enjoying life again.

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