It’s around this time of year that the various judging panels meet to determine their shortlists for the Cross Sports Book Awards. It’s a racing certainty that Clem, a biography of the late and great Wales and Lions flanker Clem Thomas, will be at the heart of the discussion on the best rugby books.
It’s written by his oldest son, Chris, and a better raconteur would be difficult to find. The 368-page book is bursting with anecdotes and many of them relate not directly to Clem but to his friends and acquaintances.
Sailor Malan, the South African flying ace who Thomas first met during the 1955 Lions tour, was someone who significantly shaped the Welshman’s life. Another key figure was former England back-row Peter Robbins, Thomas’s true soulmate and the funniest man he ever met.
Yet it’s clear that Thomas was one of those remarkable characters who seemed to know everyone, and his company was much sought. He was friends with Richard Burton and roomed with his brother at Cambridge. He dined with the King of Sweden. He became a brother-in-arms to racing driver Peter Collins, who was to die in the 1958 German Grand Prix.
He lent Clement Freud £6k in a Swansea casino and received the loan back later the same evening, after the broadcaster and politician had a successful night at the tables.
Kingsley Amis cast Thomas as his hero in the book I Like It Here and Neath artist Andrew Vicari, the man who revolutionized painting in the Arab world, portrayed him as Jesus Christ in a unique version of The Last Supper. The stories go on and on.
As a rugby player, Thomas adopted the phrase ‘blood on the boot’, used by his school coach at Blundell’s in Devon, as his battle cry. He was the first English-based schoolboy to win a Welsh Secondary Schools cap and went on to win 26 senior Wales caps and two for the Lions in a ten-year international career.
The cross-kick he delivered for Ken Jones’s winning try against the 1953 All Blacks – a tactic he picked up from French rugby – is one of the legendary moments in Welsh rugby.
But surpassing even that perhaps is his contribution to the drawn Lions series in South Africa two years later, when he was allocated the role of ‘avenging angel’ to deal with opponents who took cheap shots at his team-mates. Tony O’Reilly was the spotter.
Thomas missed the first ten games of that 25-match tour because of appendicitis – the surgeon who operated on him came straight from a post-match dinner!
After retiring in 1959, Thomas became chief rugby correspondent for The Observer, a job he was to hold for nearly 40 years. Trenchant opinion was his hallmark and in the late 1980s and early 1990s he was a fierce critic of the WRU, a body he had distrusted ever since a blazered alickadoo had taken a bottle of Cognac off him – a gift to Wales players from the FFR – at a 1949 dinner in Paris. “You’re too young to be drinking this stuff,” said the committeeman arrogantly.
As a journalist, the prescient Thomas predicted law changes years ahead of their time and he proposed a World Cup as long ago as 1970.
The chapter on his media career is brilliant, but no more so than other areas that Chris Thomas explores, such as his dabble in politics – Clem twice stood for Parliament in the 1970s as a Liberal candidate – and his love for France, where he bought a property and enjoyed so many wine-supping days in the company of great men of French rugby.
Incidentally, Clem twice nearly lost his life in France, both incidents involving Robbins; first, when an alcohol-fuelled late-night challenge went too far and he nearly drowned in the Seine; and second, when he was due to fly on the ill-fated Turkish Airlines flight in 1974 but missed it to stay for lunch in Paris with his great friend.
Away from his writing, Thomas established a successful wholesale butchery business, which was very much the family trade. Working on the farm and in the slaughterhouse in his youth gave him a taut muscularity and hardness beneficial to his rugby, although he supplemented this with 90-minute sprint sessions after training at his club, Swansea.
Down the years there were numerous other business sidelines, from starting a newspaper to buying a café. During the 1987 World Cup, he held 5am breakfasts at The No Sign Wine Bar, the iconic Swansea watering hole he owned that was once frequented by Dylan Thomas. He was an old-fashioned entrepreneur, embarking on ventures by gut instinct.
Clem Thomas died of a heart attack in September 1996, aged 67. He is buried in a churchyard overlooking Swansea Bay, where he used to sail his boat The Baa-Baa, and the St Helen’s ground he graced with such full-blooded distinction.
Clem is published by Iponymous, RRP £19,99, and you can buy the book here.
They’ve kindly provided us with six copies to give away in a competition. For a chance to win one, answer the question below and fill in your details. The competition closes on Friday 13 April.
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