The legend of Roy ‘Shunto’ Thomas – Wales’ greatest nearly man
Roy “Shunto” Thomas could be forgiven if he looked back on his rugby career with a degree of frustration.
After all, this is a man who sat on the bench for Wales no fewer than 26 times without once getting on.
But while he feels he deserved a starting spot, there is no bitterness from the former hooker, who will turn 80 next year.
Instead, he reflects on his playing days with the fondest of memories – the friendships, the trips and the very special matches.
There was the time, in 1966, when he helped Swansea beat Australia and then, of course, there was that never-to-be-forgotten occasion in 1972 when he shared in Llanelli’s 9-3 victory over New Zealand.
It will be the 50th anniversary of that historic Stradey Park triumph on October 31, but although half a century has now passed, it remains as vivid as ever in the mind of the man known throughout the game as Shunto.
Raised and schooled in Penclawdd on the north of the Gower Peninsula, he started out with the village club side before joining Swansea, where he spent much of the 1960s ahead of playing through the 1970s for the Scarlets.
As for the nickname, that came from his step-father, who was also dubbed Shunto. “He worked underground in the colliery, see, and he used to shunt the wagons around,” he explains.
Thomas’ consistent club form saw him first called up by Wales in his mid 20s and he was to remain a near permanent fixture in the squad for a decade, repeatedly being named on the bench from the late 1960s on.
He thinks it may actually be more than the oft-quoted 26 times he sat among the replacements, given how long he was part of the set-up. But, either way, it is surely a record, surpassing the likes of fellow hooker Warren Gatland, who was Sean Fitzpatrick’s unused and uncapped back-up for so many All Blacks Tests.
Initially, Thomas was the understudy to Jeff Young and then to Bobby Winsdor. The stats are pretty remarkable. He was on the bench throughout the 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1976 Five Nations campaigns without getting on for a single minute, while there were numerous matches against overseas sides, both home and away, where he again warmed the woodwork.
This, of course, was an era where subs only came on if a player was confirmed as injured by the medical staff. All very different from today’s plethora of tactical replacements.
There was the odd occasion where he thought his moment might have come, with the starting hooker going down for treatment.
“There were a few times and I remember thinking ‘If he comes off, he will never get back on’”.
That speaks to the unfaltering belief Thomas had in his own ability.
“You can ask anybody my age who followed rugby and I out-hooked every hooker in the world,” he declares.
“I could get so many balls against the head because I was quick with my left foot. I was good with my lineout throwing too.”
Who was the toughest hooker to play against, I ask? “Nobody really. I didn’t fear anyone. When I played against Bobby, I used to out-hook him. Wherever I went, I was feted as No 1.”
So, with the passing of time, how does he feel about having always had to play second fiddle for Wales?
“You can’t change what happened,” he says, living up to his tag of Shunto the Sanguine Sub.
“I was there for so long. But the selectors – some I knew and had played with over the years – they were picking the Pontypool front row all the time.”
Thomas never got on the field in a full international, but he did start for Wales in an uncapped match against Tonga at Cardiff Arms Park in October 1974. In recognition of that, he was to receive a President’s cap, which remains a prized possession on display in his home in Loughor.
Of course, if he had been playing now, he would have had a hatful of caps, given the number of Tests each year and the fact the hooker comes on in pretty much every match.
“The game has changed so much. It’s not like the game we were playing years ago. I don’t think they would live in our boots, when we were going into the mauls and all this and that,” he says.
“The referee has got his hand up all the time now, saying ‘Watch what you are doing, don’t do that’. It’s all changed.
“The players are getting paid and I never did. I had a couple of pints after the game and that was it. I didn’t have money.
“It was hard, it was really hard rugby in our days with the scrummaging and all that. Back then, we were playing two games a week, playing the English and the Welsh. You would have about 55 games a season.”
Then there were the real highlights, the matches against the touring international teams, which brings us round to Llanelli’s historic victory over the All Blacks on a dark and dank Halloween afternoon in October 1972.
“It doesn’t feel like 50 years ago. The memories are still there in my head,” says Thomas.
“I remember before the game, they were doing the Haka dance and we were there watching them.
“I enjoyed it, so when they finished I clapped. Derek Quinnell looked at me and said ‘Shut up!’.
“Then, after the game, I had a row off Carwyn. He said ‘Come here Roy. Don’t do that again. You don’t clap’. But I liked the Haka, it was great.”
Thomas had huge admiration for Scarlets coach Carwyn James, the architect of that victory over the All Blacks, a man who had already defeated them at the helm of the Lions the year before.
“He was a great bloke. I went to Llanelli because he asked me. He was tremendous, just so good. He talked to you nicely, he wouldn’t swear or anything like that. He was such a lovely man and he really instilled a belief in us.
“Going into the match, we believed we were going to win, because we had really good players – people like Benny and Grav (Phil Bennett and Ray Gravelle) – and a great coach in Carwyn. We couldn’t wait to get out there. We were so excited.
“Then Delme (skipper Delme Thomas) gave this marvellous speech before we went on the field. We were on fire and we weren’t going to let him down.”
It was a brutal affair at times, notably when infamous All Blacks prop Keith Murdoch stamped on the head of a prone Thomas.
“That just fired me up even more. I got up and went to the lineout and the crowd were shouting to me ‘Shunto, Roy, come on!’ They were getting into them. Everybody was on fire. The atmosphere was just tremendous. It was electric.”
He continues: “It was quite dirty at times. As the second half went on, with us leading, New Zealand were coming hard at us. They were coming in nasty, like. But when they came in nasty, we started to get at them and they didn’t like it. What they did to us, we would do back to them.
“You have got to get into the All Blacks because otherwise they will rip you apart. When you went into the rucks and mauls, if you didn’t do anything, they would do it to you. You had to stand up to them physically. What they were doing to you when you went down, you were doing to them.”
Llanelli stayed resolutely firm to claim the landmark victory, signalling a pitch invasion and scenes of wild euphoria on the final whistle.
“I didn’t know what to do!” says Thomas.
“The All Blacks players couldn’t believe it. But, after the game, when we were sitting together and drinking, they were telling us you were much better than us on the day. It goes like that sometimes.”
It was famously, the day the pubs ran dry in Llanelli, such were the celebrations.
“I had a load. I had a lift home to Penclawdd. They took me back to the club at about 8pm. I was well-oiled!” says Thomas.
“When I look back, there is not many sides have done what we did. I have seen the game once or twice on the television and when you look at it, ooh, you know what I mean. Great.”
To see the look on Shunto’s face as he speaks those last words, with a beaming smile and his fists clenched sums up perfectly the magnitude of the achievement and what it means to him to this day.
After finishing with Llanelli in the late 1970s, he returned to Penclawdd RFC to have a spell as coach and he still goes down to watch “The Donkeys” play on a Saturday.
Away from rugby, he had a variety of jobs, delivering coal around the Gower for years, transporting cockles all over the UK and also working for British Steel.
As we conclude our conversation, there is one question I have always wanted to ask him. Would he have swapped the 9-3 victory over the All Blacks for that elusive full cap for Wales?
“No, I wouldn’t give that up. No-one can ever take that day away from me,” he replies emphatically.
“You can’t beat playing against a touring side and beating them. Not many people can say they have had so many wins over touring sides as I did.
“I have been lucky in that way and also with the teams I played for. I played for Swansea for years and then for Llanelli the same. Two great clubs. I loved playing for both of them.
“Rugby gave me a huge amount – great friendships, fantastic trips, wonderful memories. You meet people all around the world.”
Finally, he points to a presentation photo in the corner of the room, and says: “I have had everything and, in the end, I had my cap!”
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