Wales player Gareth Thomas makes a point in a clash with Ireland in 2010. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Wales player Gareth Thomas makes a point in a clash with Ireland in 2010. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Inside the breakdown of rugby’s first gay star

TEN years ago, former British and Irish Lions captain Gareth Thomas came out as the first openly gay, active rugby player, but three years prior to that, in 2006, he told coach Scott Johnson in a Cardiff change room.

It was after the Wallabies had played Wales. Johnson was part of Australia's coaching staff and as caretaker coach of Wales earlier that year had mentored Thomas.

A married man, Thomas told wife Jemma he'd been living a double life, and then after the match at Millennium Stadium he broke down in the change rooms and asked for Johnson.

After the secret was revealed, Johnson comforted Thomas, then told some of his Welsh teammates, and they all met in a hotel bar that night and rallied around the dual international.

Thomas's teammates Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams told him: "We don't care. Why didn't you tell us before?"

They continued to privately back Thomas until he felt brave enough to tell the world in 2009.

Reacting to the Israel Folau controversy - the Wallabies star will front a code of conduct hearing on May 4 in a bid to stop the termination of his $4 million contract, after posting homophobic religious comments on social media - Johnson recalled his experience with Thomas, who remains the only Test rugby player to come out during his career.

"He was having difficulties with his life. He was a married man having difficulty," Johnson said.

"I remember after the Test match in Cardiff - and this is what I love about this sport - I'm now coaching his opposition and I get called into his change room because he only wanted to talk to me," Johnson said.

"And I spent the next 24 hours off site, in the opposition's hotel, talking to his teammates - because he couldn't - his coaching staff, and his management team.

"At the conclusion of the (tour) I was sent back by Australian rugby to follow it all up, because what happens as a coach is that you get great affinity with players - this goes beyond rugby, this is human relationship.

"And I had a kid who I loved to coach - I loved what he stood for - troubled.

"And I look back at that time and say, 'Did he pick me?' I love the fact he's become the man he has. He stands for so many good things.

"This went beyond the sport - it cut across countries. I wasn't coaching him, so I'm very proud and privileged to say I was part of that."

Israel Folau’s future with Rugby Australia is firmly up in the air. Picture: AAP
Israel Folau’s future with Rugby Australia is firmly up in the air. Picture: AAP

A fortnight ago, Thomas fired back at Folau's Instagram post, which warned homosexuals were destined for hell, writing on Twitter: "I don't write this with hate or anger after Israel Folau's comments. I write with sympathy. To everyone who reads it, don't be influenced by his words. Be the better person and be YOU. Whoever YOU is … Hell doesn't await YOU. Happiness awaits YOU".

Johnson, now Rugby Australia's director of coaching, made it clear he stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Folau when it comes to homosexuals.

"I was very honoured and privileged to be there (as) the person Gareth Thomas needed to talk to about his sexuality," Johnson said.

"The sport allowed Gareth, in a very dark period, to come out. And I look at the success of the man today.

"So Israel - I'll park until he has his chance to tell his side of the story, but as a sport and what Rugby Australia stand for, I'm all for including all types.

"Israel's got his chance to put his case forward at the tribunal (next) week. I want to make it really clear, I'm really supportive of where Rugby Australia is in this stance.

"I'm utmost for what I stand for, we want a game that is for everyone, it's an inclusion for everybody, every type.

"I've coached other kids who have had major addiction issues, from a variety of sources, where to confront those issues you've had to tell their team, you've had to confront certain people within the team.

"And the team itself is a microcosm of society; we've all got issues."