The legendary Welsh boxer Jimmy Wilde — arguably the country’s greatest ever sportsman — rejoiced under the nickname ‘The Ghost With The Hammer in His Hand”.
It is said that as a 15-year-old the pencil-thin genius from Quakers Yard would take on powerfully built miners in boxing booths, clattering the lot of them with blinding speed and anaesthetising punching power.
Arwel Thomas would never claim to be blessed with anything like the same DNA.
But for a split second in Paris back in 1997 the France scrum-half Philippe Carbonneau could have been forgiven for feeling the way Wilde’s opponents must have felt when they faced their moment of truth back in the day.
Thomas had been known more for his ability to ghost through defences and trigger attacks with perfectly timed passes. “Every time I see him play he reminds me why rugby can be breathtaking without necessarily seeing the breath knocked out of someone,” a scribe once wrote of the impish former Swansea and Neath man.
But a couple of decades ago here was one-punch Arwel unleashing a shot that Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns would have signed off.
We joined in by finding out what prompted the disagreement between the pair and how they later became team-mates and great friends.
Arwel Thomas in more familiar dynamic action for Wales
The game itself
Wales had started the 1997 Five Nations with a stylish win over Scotland at Murrayfield, with Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs, Dai Young and Scott Quinnell returning from rugby league to help Kevin Bowring’s side post a swaggering 34-19 success in which Thomas played a starring role.
In between, they went to France, who were menacingly powerful at the time, with the likes of Jean-Luc Sadourny, Stephane Glas and Christophe Lamaison behind and Christian Califano, Abdel Benazzi and Fabien Pelous up front.
Les Bleus had won 14 of 16 previous games in the fixture, some of which saw Wales barely offering an argument.
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Wales came up with one of their better performances, albeit one that ended in defeat.
Bateman, in particular, stood out with his ability to cut the defensive line. Indeed, he made so many line-busts that day at Parc de Princes that one travelling Welsh supporter christened him Allan Breakman.
Thomas, these days working as a representative for a company that sells dental products, recalls: “The rugby league boys had come back and Bateman had a great game.
“I remember I was rooming with Gibbsy the night before the game and I was struggling to sleep. He wasn’t best pleased, saying: ‘For hell’s sake, get to sleep’ — and I’m giving you the version you can use in the paper.
As he is today little Arwel, still keeping active
Wales scored tries through Gareth Thomas, Bateman and Rob Howley but couldn’t get past the winning post, with France replying through two touchdowns from Laurent Leflamand and one apiece from Oliver Merle and David Venditti en route to a 27-22 win.
“He sort of pushed me under my chin and into my face. I just reacted stupidly by turning around and punching him in the face.
“That was about it.
“He was in ‘you’re not going to mess with me’ mode.
“But then I hit him back.
Arwel Thomas throws a punch
“It was a bit silly, not least because it was live on TV and there were close on 50,000 people in the stadium. It was always going to cause a potential problem.”
Did Arwel believe he was going to be dismissed?
“Straightaway, I thought I might be off,” he says.
“They replayed the incident and the crowd made a hell of a noise. I thought: ‘Oh, no!’
“But Wayne Erickson was the touch judge. I’d spent six months out in Australia playing rugby for Easts, which just happened to be his rugby club and I had got to know him. He came on and gave Wales a penalty.
“But let’s just say I was fortunate to have been given the benefit of the doubt.
“Really, I should have gone. If you punch somebody in the face you should not stay on the field.”
The odds for the outright winner are.
1. Ireland: 8/11
3. Wales: 5/1
5. Scotland: 16/1
Wales to win the Grand Slam: 12/1
Wales to win Triple Crown: 6/1
Wales to get the Wooden Spoon: 33/1
If you fancy something different.
Sparring partners reunited
“We had some stick initially but they made us training partners.
“He was a brilliant rugby player, one of the best I played with or against.
“It was all over in the blink of an eye — a shove in the face, a punch and a French crowd whistling and roaring for a visiting player to be sent off. Yet it just seems to stick with a lot of people.”
It was the way it used to be in the madhouse that was French rugby at the time, gnarled and uncompromising forwards to the fore.
Acts that would earn dismissals and long bans were they attempted today still blighted the game back then.
Violence was a particular problem over there.
But on this occasion it was a comparative flyweight in a Wales No. 10 jersey who swung and connected.
It was hopelessly out of character but the episode is remembered by so many. In his capacity as co-commentator for BBC Wales that day, JJ Williams watched the slow motion replay and said: “Arwel took the punch first. No messing: Arwel put it straight back on his jaw — well done.”
Were such made nowadays, they would trigger a social media frenzy.
But two decades ago they barely prompted a reaction.
Vive la difference, as they may or may not say in Trebanos.