Warrior Alfie’s leadership is more important now than ever

“I WISH I’d never agreed to do this bloody book, I don’t want anything else to do with it”, he yelled down the phone. And with that, he hung up.

This was Gareth Thomas, circa November 2007, after the autobiography we had collaborated on had been finished and was about to go to print.

I’d called him during a break at work on the South Wales Echo sports desk, the intention being to arrange with him a schedule for promoting the long-awaited tome via a press conference and various other media appointments.

‘Alfie!‘, the title of Gareth’s life story, had already been delayed a year. After the furore over Mike Ruddock’s messy departure from the Wales coaching job in February 2006 had died down, Gareth Jenkins had taken over on a permanent basis ahead of that year’s summer tour to Argentina – and Alfie, as he is universally known, asked for the book’s release to be postponed to avoid any disruption to the new boss’ early months in charge.

Publishers Mainstream reluctantly agreed but now, with Wales having returned from the 2007 World Cup in ignominy after a pool stage exit at the hands of Fiji, and with Gareth having effectively retired from Test rugby as Wales’ first cap centurion, it was time for the presses to roll.

The book which me and Alfie collaborated on

The extent to which the former Wales captain had got cold feet about the book was an indication of his inner turmoil. His fear – he didn’t actually admit this but it was obvious to me at the time – was that in publicising the work, in inviting journalists to highlight a presumably comprehensive account of his life, he would give them implied licence to investigate the well established tittle-tattle about his sexuality. Worse, to go ahead and reveal his sexuality on their insensitive terms.

And so there was no press conference. There were no signing sessions in shops. The book hit the shelves and sold well, but Gareth kept his head down. Ever since, I’ve barely had a conversation lasting more than a few moments with him, usually when our paths have crossed on the media circuit and we’ve exchanged the standard benign pleasantries. He’s barely ever acknowledged even doing the book, as if it’s a part of his life he has no wish to revisit.

So, why do I recall such turbulent times here? Well, Gareth’s involvement in BBC Sport’s superb package of content marking LGBT+ history month put me in a contemplative mood.

In a typically candid interview, the dual code international speaks about dispelling myths around living with HIV. He revealed he is living with the condition in October 2019, years after receiving a diagnosis, also disclosing that he’d had no choice about doing so after a journalist had informed his parents, Yvonne and Barry, unforgivably doorstepping them at their home in Sarn near Bridgend.

Seeing and listening to Gareth talk with such confidence and passion about the discrimination and stereotyping which members of the LGBT+ community still face, very often through the lens of his personal story, always reminds me of two things; the vital importance of people like him in the ongoing battle against the type of bigotry mentioned above, and the sheer distance Gareth himself has travelled since those torturous days of a decade and a half ago.

In the twitter video he posted to reveal his HIV, Gareth said: “I want to share my secret with you. Why? Because it’s mine to tell. Not the evils threatening to tell you before I do.

“Now, even though I’ve been forced to tell you this, I choose to fight, to educate.”

While nobody should be forced to reveal their sexuality, or information relating to their health, Gareth has always spoken about the liberating power of taking control of each situation. This power has enabled him to be a force for untold good in the lives of countless others who have faced, and still do, a battle for acceptance in sport and society in general on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

It’s a subject that each academic year is discussed and studied as part of several modules on our BA Sports Journalism degree course at University of South Wales. It is always topical, it matters enormously, and students always approach it with enthusiasm and critical enquiry.

Gareth’s journey truly has been long and remarkable in its transformation.

During that 2007 World Cup in France, which I covered for the Echo, a depressing pattern began to emerge in the build-up to each Wales game.

A rumour would surface somewhere in the press corps that one of the national tabloids was planning to imminently reveal his homosexuality.

By then I had developed a close working relationship with Gareth. He never specifically told me he was gay, but he knew I knew. And I knew he knew I knew.

On a couple of occasions during that tournament I spoke to him on the phone about the likelihood, or lack of it, of him being outed in print on the morning of a match. He was understandably distraught at the prospect, which mercifully never actually happened.

It was difficult then, as it is now, to comprehend how he could possibly have functioned effectively under the pressure not just of leading his country on the biggest stage of all, but of living in constant fear of the judgement and persecution he believed would come his way if his sexuality was ever made public knowledge.

Gareth and wife Jemma in 2004. Pic: WalesOnline

Again mercifully, by the time Gareth decided to come out in December 2009, even the macho world of rugby union was sufficiently enlightened to treat what was already a bit of an open secret with appropriate indifference. It was news of course, but the overwhelming reaction was one of admiration for Gareth. I never encountered anybody, in rugby circles and beyond, who wasn’t pleased that he could finally live his life on his own terms.

The reaction, as far as some were concerned, made all the years of secrecy seem unnecessary. But in the two years or so after the World Cup, Gareth had his estranged wife Jemma to consider in any decision to go public.

In January 2005 I visited the couple in Toulouse, where Gareth was then playing his club rugby, to begin work with him on the book. I stayed two nights in their home after he had point-blank refused to entertain the idea of me paying for hotel accommodation.

Cliche it may be, but he and Jemma appeared to be, if not the perfect couple then something very close to it. I remember on the journey home thinking such was his domestic marital harmony that rumours he was gay couldn’t possibly be true.

A few months later, when Gareth was temporarily back in Wales on international duty, I went to see him at his house in St Brides Major in the Vale of Glamorgan. I felt writing his book meant I had to at least ask him about the rumours simply because they were so widespread and long-standing.

Given what I had experienced in Toulouse my expectation, naturally, was that if he was going to talk about it at all it would be along the lines of how hurtful in its untruthfulness such gossip over so many years had been. Anyway, feeling distinctly awkward, I asked him…

“Load of bollocks, butt,” he replied, before emphasising: “I don’t want that in the book”. He blamed an old team mate for spreading lies and couldn’t have been more dismissive of the whole business.

Ultimately this, his first autobiography, was published without reference to his sexuality. It contained a vast amount of detail about his playing career and personal life, but bears no resemblance to his 2014 collaboration with Michael Calvin, Proud, in which he holds nothing back about who he really is, or subsequent books he has worked on for Penguin.

The cover of Gareth’s 2014 book

By the time these were produced, Gareth had of course retired as one of rugby’s genuine all-time greats. His achievements and longevity as a player speak for themselves, but in a sport which has always celebrated so-called hard men it gets forgotten just how tough Gareth was. Is.

Perhaps the best indicator of his granite core was the fact that at a stage of his career when he should have been held together with sticky tape, he played a season in Rugby League’s Superleague – arguably the most physically demanding oval-ball arena of them all – with the now defunct Crusaders.

Now, as he continues to be a standard-bearer for LGBT+ interests, particularly in the world of sport, it is his mental resilience which so often comes to the fore. He is, thankfully, not alone.

The ongoing battle against discrimination and stigma in sport is being led on so many fronts at present by high profile stars who are either still playing, or once did.

Footballers like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling are confronting racism and too many sporting icons to mention have ensured mental health is part of an ongoing social conversation rather than the taboo it once was. Meanwhile, Gareth and the likes of Wales women’s football legend Jess Fishlock, remain central figures in a quest for LGBT+ equality in sport that has ever-increasing relevance as we head deeper into the 2020s.

I watch Gareth’s impact on the latter front with fascination and -perhaps an apt word – pride.

When rugby went professional in 1995 he used to skip training with Cardiff RFC to mess around playing tennis at the David Lloyd centre with team mate Leigh Davies.

He went on to become the most unlikely rugby hero, someone who not only played the game brilliantly but who led, warrior-like, by example. Nobody foresaw the player and the leader that he would become.

His heroism extends away from the field these days – and nobody foresaw that either. Furthermore, the impact he is now able to have on so many lives is much more profound. The importance of that impact should never be taken for granted.

Too many spheres of sport remain sullied by culturally embedded social ignorance and entrenched prehistoric attitudes. Extinguishing those requires campaigners to be in it for the long haul.

Progress will never happen quickly enough.

But Thomas, through sheer force of personality and will, provides so much of the energy needed to maintain the momentum.

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