Find out more about the France winger who scored a hat-trick on his Test debut
FIRST THINGS first. Despite the surname Teddy Thomas hasn’t got a Welsh bone in his body. He’s born-and-bred French with some Malian blood thrown into the mix. It’s his father who hails from Mali, but that’s about as much as Thomas knows of his dad.
“My father abandoned me shortly before my birth,” explained Thomas in a painfully honest interview with Midi Olympique earlier in the season. All the Racing Métro winger knows about his dad is that he was born in Bamako, the west African country’s capital, in the 1950s, came to France and played professional football for a time with Saint-Etienne and then Marseille. His career seemed to have finished by the time Thomas was born in Biarritz in 1993, and since then he’s disappeared off the face of the earth.
His absence has marked Thomas, literally as well as figuratively. On his left bicep are two tattoos: one of which shows Mali within a map of Africa, and a word in Latin meaning ‘Dad’.
Thomas bears no bitterness towards his father. There’s just sadness that he has never known the man from whom he inherited his exceptional athletic ability. “I don’t want to judge him,” said Thomas of his father. “I know neither the circumstances of his departure nor the ups and downs of his life, and honestly I don’t want to know them.”
Thomas, who was born within the shadow of the Biarritz rugby stadium, was raised by his mother, a woman to whom he owes everything. “I wasn’t an easy kid,” he admits. “I didn’t like school, I had trouble concentrating in class, I was hyperactive. In fact, I never really realised that my mum was doing a succession of little jobs to provide for us.”
The paternal love he received as a child came from his grandfather and an uncle. They took Teddy to rugby training, nurtured and encouraged him as he grew from a boy into a young man. When he joined the Biarritz Academy, Thomas soon came to the attention of Patrice Lagisquet, the club’s coach before joining the France set-up after RWC 2011.
Lagisquet remains one of the best wingers to wear the French shirt. Twenty tries in 46 Tests, Lagisquet was known as the ‘Bayonne Express’ but there was more to his game than just pace. He had a deft step, a strong hand-off and, above all, he knew how to finish. These are all qualities that Thomas has in abundance, plus at 6ft 1in and 14½ stone there’s a bit more flesh on the bones than the whippet-like Lagisquet.
On the eve of Thomas’s debut against Fiji last weekend, Lagisquet described him as a “hunter of tries”, adding with admirable prescience: “I’m not worried about his debut. I saw him at Biarritz (and) he reacts well to pressure. He’s ambitious and he likes rising to challenges.”
Thomas is far from the finished article. Since arriving at Racing Métro in the summer, he’s spent a lot of time working on his defence. But he was still opened up too easily by Fiji when Watisoni Votu scored the first of the Islanders’ two tries in Saturday’s 40-15 defeat. That won’t have escaped the Wallabies and Thomas can expect his defence to be given a thorough examination on Saturday at the Stade de France.
But Thomas will be helped in that regard by the presence of Scott Spedding at full-back. The South Africa-born Spedding created two of Thomas’s three tries against Fiji in what was also his France debut. Spedding is a steadying influence in the French back-line, a man born to Test rugby whose calm focus in the hurly-burly of his first International was eye-catching.
But it was Thomas with his three tries on his debut (only the second Frenchman to achieve such a feat, the first being Rodolphe Modin against Zimbabwe in the 1987 World Cup) who took the accolades in the wake of the Fijian thrashing. Named Man of the Match, the 21-year-old was lauded by Toulon coach Bernard Laporte the following day. “He’s a very good player, a player of the future,” exclaimed Laporte on French radio. “The French team needs an image, an icon… he has a look, he radiates something.”
He does indeed. Thomas doesn’t fit the mould of the traditional French rugby player, a man of the deep countryside imbued with a sense of Gallic tradition. Thomas loves American culture, everything from the NBA to rap music, which is why at Biarritz he was nicknamed ‘The American’. One of his favourite rugby moments, he told Midi Olympique, was “the time when Digby [Ioane] and Danny Cipriani did a ‘dougie’ (a hip-hop dance) in the in-goal during the Super 15. I found that magnificent”.
France needs Thomas, not just the rugby team but the country. At a time when the National Front is on the rise, this gifted young winger is a reminder of all that is great about the rich diversity of France. And somewhere in France is the man who helped bring this rugby prodigy into the world.
Before moving to Racing, he and his girlfriend tried to trace his father. Their efforts yielded little in the way of hard information. “I think he lives today in a suburb of Paris,” explained Thomas to Midi Olympique, adding that he doesn’t think it likely his father will get in touch. “If, by chance, he comes across this article, I would just like him to know that I don’t hold anything against him.”
Teddy Thomas has got class, on and off the rugby field.