Caryl Thomas on the pride of Wales Women and remembering Elli Norkett
17 March 2017 17:53pm
By Kate Rowan
Caryl Thomas celebrates a Wales Women try against Italy in this year's Women's Six Nations
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be packing down in a front row in a rugby test match?
"I think there is something amazing about playing in the front row."
Welsh loosehead Caryl Thomas with 33 caps to her name is not just well qualified to shed some light on one of the more mysterious areas of the rugby field but also provides a fascinating insight into the psychological battle being fought between opposing front rows,
"Being in the front row, you are basically one on one with the other person and you can look them in the eye and go head to head. Some players you go against, it is an even competition," she said.
"You really have to work to win that and within a scrum, you do the slightest mistake, you slip and lose your balance and the other person can win. So you have to really concentrate for those five, eight seconds to gain the advantage out of it."
She continues on the subject of life in the scrum explaining the contrasting emotions of when a player is on top of their opponent versus feeling under pressure.
"I think there is something amazing about playing the front row for the whole game when you are dominant and you come against that person, you are so confident, and you feel, 'yeah, let's go scrummage!' And it is the worst feeling in the world, when you are losing the battle and it's another scrum and you have to go against them," she added.
With experience, confidence grows in scrummaging battles as with many things in life. She added: "Back at the start when you are a new prop and you come against all these experienced players, it is something that is a bit daunting but now I relish that one on one battle against the opposition."
The old cliché of living, eating, breathing and sleeping a sport is often bandied about but it is difficult to find a better way of expressing just what an important role rugby plays in Thomas's life.
Not only has the West Walian been involved in the Wales Women's squad for over a decade, earning her first cap in 2006, playing club rugby for Bath and currently with Bristol in the Women's Premiership, her day job is working as Inclusion Manager for the Bath Rugby Foundation, the charitable arm of Bath Rugby Club.
Guess what Thomas does when she is not playing rugby or working with it as a tool to help the community?
The 31-year-old coaches the University of Bath Women's Rugby Team, so she is never far away from the sport.
"I literally don't have that much spare time. My evenings are taken up coaching, or at training," she added.
Having rugby dominate so much of her life, Thomas's enthusiasm and affection for her sport is infectious. So, why does she love the oval ball so much?
The answer comes from both the perspective of a player striving to perform and from the perspective of a coach and mentor encouraging others of all abilities,
"From playing the side of it, I love sports anyway, team sports especially, getting stuck in and mixing with a variety of people. I love that rugby, you can be so talented, you can be the fastest person on the team, but you can come up against the most powerful person and that side of it. I think there is a big camaraderie thing, especially with me being in the front row, you build real bonds with people in the front row and second row become a unit and I think rugby is special for that. From the contact side of it, and going in head to head against somebody in front of you, that really appeals to me."
She adds, "From a coaching perspective, and through my job, I love seeing people progress. They can be all different sizes, it can be touch, tag or contact, or you can play adaptive rules. It is a sport for anyone and I really like to see people progress. That is why I coach at the University, so I can push people towards their goals, we have some girls playing England Under 20s, and playing sevens now for England. So we just get an array of people that come along and it's great to get everybody stuck in and have a coaching session together."
As a Welsh woman living and working with rugby in England there is of course quite a bit of good natured banter on both sides of the Severn Bridge, "When I am in Wales, they say I have got an English twang and when I am in England, obviously they are like 'Hey Welshy!' and that kind of stuff, straight away! In Bristol, we played England the other day and there were 13 of us that were between England and Wales that play in Bristol. So, there was quite a lot of banter on that side."
Another of Thomas's Bristol teammates is Ireland openside Claire Molloy. Facing her club mates on the Women's Six Nations stage is something she particularly enjoys, "I really like it. I really look forward to it. You have a cheeky wind them up moment I guess. I look forward to that a little bit and afterwards it is really nice to see the girls obviously, talk the game through. On the pitch you are going against each other but then afterwards you are right back to friends," she added.
The 2017 Women's Six Nations has been a difficult time for the Welsh squad as they lost a teammate and friend with the tragic death of 20 year-old Wales and Ospreys player Elli Norkett in a car accident.
"Obviously with Elli's passing it was really, really tough. For the girls from Swansea who play with her club and Ospreys and that is devastating not to have her around," she said.
"The WRU have been so supportive. They have been fantastic with re-arranged training sessions and had opportunities to get together as a team and just support, with busses down to the funeral, and offering that. We have really come together as a team."
The team played a special tribute before last week's fixture against Ireland in the Cardiff Arms Park.
"It was great to honour her last week at the Ireland game and have EN on our shirts and having family come and present the shirts. The shirt presentation was amazing," she added.
With great emotion, Thomas explains how much it meant to the team to have Elli's parents Kim and Caroline present the jerseys, "They were so strong to do that and we were proud that they did do that and to represent her and to have the strength to do it. Honestly, they put the video on, a tribute video and everyone sobbing, full on sobbing and then her Dad spoke and he spoke so well and it was just amazing. It was fantastic."
The Ireland game was an emotionally tough occasion, with former captain Rachel Taylor speaking to the team before the game.
"Rachel addressed it really well. She said it is going to be emotional," she added. "We all recognised that anyway but we are here to do a job too. We are here for a performance and it was kind of eat up the emotion and as soon as we finish the anthems, people are upset crying, me being one of them, you wipe away your tears and then you have got a job on. As soon as that kick off came in you are back in that stage of playing rugby. Elli wouldn't have wanted anything else really."
The 2017 RBS 6 Nations was watched by record numbers of fans
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