MY LIFE IN RUGBY

The Rugby Paper - - Feature - DANNY THOMAS THE FOR­MER PLY­MOUTH AL­BION AND DEVON FLANKER

Ican’t re­mem­ber much about the one and only time I won at Twick­en­ham in 2004 as I was suf­fer­ing from pneu­mo­nia.

I felt dread­ful, but Devon’s doc­tor gave me an in­jec­tion to get me through the match and, some­how, I man­aged to play the full 80 min­utes in our first County Cham­pi­onship win for nearly 50 years, against Glouces­ter­shire.

Af­ter the game I went straight to the team coach and slept for what seemed like hours. I think it took me about two months to fi­nally shake off the ef­fects of what I’d put my body through.

My back-row col­league at Ply­mouth, Chris Lowrie, got to lift the Cup that day – an hon­our that nar­rowly es­caped me when I led Al­bion to the fi­nal of the Pow­er­gen Shield, a year later at Twick­en­ham.

We had beaten a strong Bris­tol team in the semi­fi­nal to set up a date with Bed­ford. It was a close game through­out and, with sec­onds left, we trailed by a sin­gle point. It was all or noth­ing and we launched an at­tack from deep and very nearly snatched it at the death only for Nigel Cane to drop the ball over the line. It was a long bus jour­ney home.

While never the most skil­ful of play­ers, I prided my­self on my work-rate around the park, and pre­ferred to lead by ex­am­ple rather than through any rous­ing speeches. There were other peo­ple bet­ter suited to that role in our chang­ing room. What I did well was the ugly stuff that no-one else par­tic­u­larly wanted to do, like hit rucks.

To be fair, I was happy to play the un­sung role as there were more skil­ful play­ers who de­served the lime­light. I knew my place in the team and tried to ful­fil that as best I could. We were blessed in the back-row depart­ment be­ing able to call upon play­ers like Martin Schus­ter­man, Dan WardSmith and Al­fie Tooala, and I think I was quite lucky to hold on in there for as long as I did.

I loved the con­fronta­tional side of rugby – al­though I’m not so sure I’d say the same nowa­days given the size of the play­ers – and had some good bat­tles over the years, no­tably with Joe El Abd and Al­fie when he was with Rother­ham and Or­rell.

When big teams like Har­lequins dropped down, it was al­ways a chal­lenge I em­braced. I don’t think I laid a hand on Andrew Mehrtens though; he was a class act es­pe­cially at that level.

Play­ing for Al­bion was ob­vi­ously a great step up from my lo­cal club Barn­sta­ple and I man­aged to play a fair amount of rugby from thereon in. Be­tween 2000 and 2001, we went on a record un­beaten 41-game run, which fi­nally came to an end up at Wharfedale, on our way to achiev­ing back-to-back pro­mo­tions up to what is now the Cham­pi­onship.

There was a real de­sire amongst every­one to play at as high a level as pos­si­ble and we spurred each other on, even win­ning when not play­ing par­tic­u­larly well.

In 2007 I suf­fered a bad neck in­jury try­ing to tackle my old house-mate, Alan Paver, in a game down at Pen­zance. I dam­aged one of the discs and had trouble with my nerves on the right-hand side of my body and lost quite a lot of mus­cle.

Af­ter a year out, I did man­age to get back on the Ply­mouth bench a few times but that was ef­fec­tively it for me as a player and I turned my at­ten­tion to coach­ing. Any­way, young play­ers like Mike Den­bee and Rory WattsJones were com­ing through in the back-row and de­served a crack.

Af­ter spells at Ply­mouth, my old club Barn­sta­ple and then Chip­pen­ham, I’m now coach­ing at Yat­ton RFC along­side Rob Thirlby. - as told to Jon New­combe

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