Analysis: Thomas takes his chance

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Whether you first saw Ben Thomas playing schoolboy rugby for Corpus Christi or Cardiff Schools, age grade rugby for Cardiff or Wales, college rugby for Cardiff & Vale College, Premiership rugby for Cardiff RFC or professional rugby for Cardiff Blues, you cannot fail to have been impressed.

It’s not so much a case of jumping on the bandwagon as being run over and dragged along by it.

Despite the increasing attention levels as he has graduated through each stage of the development pathway though, Thomas’ step into the first team at the Arms Park has been somewhat stuttering due to a lack of regular game time.

A debut in the European Challenge Cup against Calvisano in November 2019 led to three starts in three Welsh derbies during the festive period that followed, but after the covid-10 pandemic the 22-year-old would only make five starts during the 2020/21 Guinness Pro14 campaign, coming off the bench just four times.

However, over the last two months Thomas has started each of the five Rainbow Cup games, featuring at full-back against the Ospreys and fly-half against the Dragons before reverting to the inside centre slot in the final three games which has began his familiar position at the senior professional level, and it’s here where I’ll look at how he’s arrived in the Wales squad for this summer’s tests against Canada and Argentina.

Of course while Thomas has played the majority of his senior rugby at inside centre, it was at fly-half that he graduated through the pathway, meaning he can offer that playmaking ability from midfield that players like Matt Giteau, James Hook and Owen Farrell have provided for their respective nations down the years.

None of the clips are particularly remarkable plays, but they are touches that someone with the awareness of a fly-half makes rather than a more conventional hard carrying inside centre.

The quality of the miss-pass for Matthew Morgan that gives him that extra yard to get on the outside of the defender, the acknowledgement of the winger spot blitzing with the subsequent delay of the pass to give Dan Fish the chance to get on the outside, and the body position to hold the Munster defender and put Seb Davies into space are all the work of someone with a natural playmaking ability.

Even though Morgan and Fish don’t quite make a line break, Thomas putting them in a position to get over the gain line and stretch the defence is a key aspect of the tweaked attacking style we’ve seen during the Rainbow Cup, pushing and pulling the opposition at a tempo that eventually results in lapses of discipline, shape or both.

What helps him hold the defence and offer those on his shoulder to get outside the opposition though, is that he is a dual threat of playmaker and carrying option.

Thomas is no longer the slightly wiry kid who burst on to the scene on the Wales U18 tour of South Africa in the summer of 2017, but while he retains that turn of place and ability to almost seem like he’s gliding as he makes the break against Zebre, he has added some bulk that allows him to grind out metres after contact against Munster and Scarlets.

It means that the defence is kept guessing, and Cardiff don’t lose too many metres in midfield by not picking any of Max Llewellyn, Willis Halaholo, Rey Lee-Lo or Garyn Smith. There’s still an out-ball which sees Thomas arrive on a crash ball line, and it can still be part of a pre-called set of plays that see us get around the corner quickly and exploit space in phases two-to-five.

With him in the side though it’s not simply the case that we have two options from inside centre, as his partnership with Jarrod Evans in the 10/12 axis has opened up a number of attacking shapes thanks to Evans’ playmaking alongside his jinking carries, and their burgeoning ability to inter-change at first and second receiver with ease.

With Thomas slotting in at first receiver on pre-called plays the defence has to identify the attacking shape of Cardiff, the intention of Thomas to run or pass, then potentially the intention of Evans to run or pass, before even taking into consideration the other players in the attacking line.

Ultimately that leads to danger men outside the 10/12 axis, like Josh Adams and Matthew Morgan in the clips above, coming on to the ball at speed in space, which is the aim of the new attacking structure; getting the right men in possession in the right areas of the field.

There’s also the added presence of the forwards running off the shoulders of both Thomas and Evans, as James Ratti gets joy from the defence keeping an eye on the fly-half while he runs off the inside centre, but the most impressive aspect of the playmaking relationship is how they’ve developed beyond the pre-called set plays.

In this circumstance Thomas and Evans start as split playmakers either side of the breakdown, with the defence aware that the attack could go either way, before from the second phase Evans ghosts back to the left hand side where Thomas can pull the ball attack and put him into space in a 4-on-2 overlap, bringing Aled Summerhill on to the ball at speed.

This game awareness and consistency of skill execution from Thomas appears to be a direct consequence of playing week-in, week-out as he has done the last few months, becoming a key cog in this new attacking game plan that sees us hold on to the ball for much longer, play in the right areas of the field and ultimately apply more pressure to the opposition defence.

Now he has a well deserved call-up for the Wales squad this summer and in a Wayne Pivac attack that has a similar outlook on moving the ball at pace and stretching the field, he could well get himself some game time to show what he can do on the international stage where his partnership with Evans can flourish and he can build a similar axis with Callum Sheedy.

In the medium term back at Cardiff next season it will be interesting to see what sort of game time he gets and in what position, but there’s a strong argument to be made for him to share inside centre duties with Max Llewellyn depending on whether a second playmaker or a more physical 12 is required.

Of course Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo remain the first choice centre pairing, but as the former perhaps plays at outside centre more often with an eye on regular international selection, and the latter heads towards the final part of his career where his game time needs to be more carefully managed, that partnership can be reserved for big games.

If that is the case then Ben Thomas will take on more responsibility week-in, week-out as Dai Young looks to lead Cardiff to those elusive league play-offs and regular qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup.

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