Gareth Thomas criticises RFU's 'very feeble, weak response' after Folau and Vunipola controversy

Former Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas pictured at the Federation of Irish Sport Annual Conference 2019. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Gareth Thomas had to stop and gather himself more than once today. His voice faltered. It choked with emotion. Who knows how many times his nerves were betrayed by a subconscious impulse to tug at his right ear?

Thomas didn't know what he was going to say when he woke up on Thursday morning for his flight from Cardiff to Dublin. The workings of his presentation for the Federation of Irish Sport's annual conference only crystallised as he sat in the green room before going on stage.

What he delivered was a personal outpouring of raw emotion and searing honesty that was met with a standing ovation by a room full of strangers. Produced in an intimate setting, the message was one that deserves a global reach.

Thomas is an ex-rugby player who earned over a hundred caps for Wales. He represented four clubs, the British and Irish Lions and the Barbarians. And, in 2009, he declared that he was gay.

It was inevitable then that he was asked about Israel Folau and Billy Vunipola. It was Folau who tweeted that homosexuals, among others, were destined for hell. It was Vunipola who then 'liked' that tweet.

Folau has since been sacked by the Australian Rugby Union after an extensive disciplinary procedure but Vunipola has been given nothing more than a light slap on the wrists by his club Saracens and the English Rugby Football Union.

“What I don't think (Folau) understands is the platform he has to young people or influential people who will feel that, if somebody can say something like that on such a huge scale, then why can't it be something that can be said to another child in the playground,” said Thomas, “or someone else can say to someone else in the pub or the park.

And Billy Vunipola's 'like' and his response, to me, I feel the RFU have been very, very weak in their response because ... to allow somebody to say that just because he is your best player, and to be able to give a very feeble, weak response, again, is a terrible message to show.

It's not just the message of intolerance that Folau and Vunipola have promoted that bothers Thomas. It is the fact that they have used the profile handed to them by rugby to do it and his concern that the game is being tainted by association.

His own experiences in rugby do not tally with those views.

It is ten years since he told the world he was gay. He did it on the morning of a Heineken Cup quarter-final between Cardiff and Toulouse in France and memories of the day still resonate a decade on.

He was unprepared for the media surge. For his name to appear on the ticker tape on BBC New 24. For the paparazzi and journalists swarming outside the team hotel as they left for the game. And for the reaction at the stadium.

Teams pitching up to play Toulouse invariably run a gauntlet of intimidation as they descend from the bus on arrival but thousands of 'Toulousain' merely stood in silence as Thomas and his teammates made for the changing-rooms.

His nerves frayed by the experience, Thomas took to the field fearing he would be judged but the moment of release came when the stadium announcer began listing off the Blues team prior to kick-off.

'15 ... Leigh Halfpenny.' Cue chorus of boos and whistles.

'14 ... Tom James.' Same.

'13 ... Gareth Thomas...'

And 50,000 fans cheered as loud that day for me as they did for any of their home town heroes,” he recalled. “And you know what, I remember standing on that field thinking this is the only field I ever dreamed of being on: where I can be myself, which is passionate, patriotic and extremely proud. That day I stood on a professional rugby player or the first time in my life being honest.

The sense of relief and release and acceptance Thomas felt that day can't be measured. This is a man who had contemplated suicide numerous times such was the internal struggle and torment that had enveloped him for 25 years.

He had already told some of his closest friends and teammates about his sexuality prior to that day in France – his ex-wife, too – and he shared here the story of how he had broken the news to his parents and the fear of rejection that had plagued him.

“It was a strange reaction because there was no reaction at all.“

Thomas left his parents house that first day figuring that if it took him a quarter of a century to process his own sexuality then it would take his mum and dad a tad more than one sentence or one afternoon to come to terms with it.

He returned to their home in Bridgend three weeks later where his mother had three champagne glasses laid out in the living room and a bottle of champagne - “sparkling white wine”, he chuckled – waiting in the fridge.

What, he asked, are we celebrating?

“From behind me, my father stood up to speak,” Thomas told his audience at The Helix in DCU. “Now, my father is a very, very quiet man but when he speaks people listen.

“And it was at that point that my father - (he paused here to collect himself) - that my father took a glass and raised it to the sky and said: 'son, I'd just like to toast the start of the rest of your life'.”

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