The English prop left uncertainty behind at Bath – and now has a Top 14 title to his name
Henry Thomas on his upturn with Montpellier
It all began at Montpellier’s Place de la Comedie. Or should that be, the ending of a long Top 14 season started in the square. Not long after the party moved on, clarity hit.
“We were having a good time and then we got on a coach to the stadium, where there was another big stage, 20,000 people,” explains prop Henry Thomas. “After about two or three hours of being there, I took myself away for a bit of a reflect, after probably a few too many drinks. I reflected on the last 12 months and it was quite emotional.
“It was about how close I was to not being anywhere. And then how big a moment this was for not only myself but for the whole of Montpellier.”
Now in Mexico for a well-earned fortnight of f-all, Thomas flew out as a Top 14 champion following a 29-10 victory against Castres in the league final. It was Montpellier’s first-ever Bouclier de Brennus win. And his first ever winner’s medal as a pro. Thomas had tasted Premiership final defeat with Bath in 2015 so this, it’s safe to say, felt gorgeous.
And there’s another layer to that too. As last season drew to a close, the future had that worrying tinge of uncertainty for the seven-cap tighthead before he moved to France.
He explains: “Everything was up in the air for a while. I almost moved to La Rochelle during the end of last season and Bath blocked it, because they needed me. I didn’t really have anywhere until maybe five games to go in the season. I was buzzing about it because I’d played there a few times with Sale and Bath and loved the place.
“It was great to just have a fresh start. New coaches. New environment. To not have to worry about the politics of the day-to-day at a club in English rugby. Especially with a club like Bath that I cared about, because I grew up there.”
The not knowing was unsettling, Thomas says of last season’s conclusion, adding that he felt “Bath strung me along a little bit”. He had always pondered playing abroad but he could feel time ticking away. There were some probes from the Top 14 without anything concrete, and the ProD2 sides were beginning to sniff about. The prop was watching his contract near expiry and wondering if he would have a job or means to pay the mortgage.
It’s a tough scale to operate, as he explains the job of weighing your sense of worth against realism and market forces. There was some English interest too but when Montpellier came in, it was relief.
There were still hopes to jump through, of course. Wrangling a visa in the age of Brexit. Moving your life over the water. Then there was Covid isolation to navigate. Right at the start of pre-season he was bunking with club stalwart Paul Willemse – who not only speaks English but knows the place inside out, and can introduce you to everyone…
So when Thomas tore his hamstring on day one with the full squad, it hurt for several reasons.
Despite this he dug in. He joined the injured group. Ignored any silly whispers about whether he had arrived injured. Showed willing. He was in the mix on team-building days on Saturdays with the gendamerie or at a bull farm.
When the time came to play rugby, he felt like he plugged in well with a pack eager to obliterate the ghosts of a poor previous season. Switching in with fellow tightheads Titi Lamositele and Mohamed Haouas, there was a shared sense of responsibility.
As Kieran Brookes told Rugby World earlier in the season, there is an expectation up front in the French game. And there are monsters everywhere. But as Thomas tells us of joining a new outfit: “Obviously you’ve got to fit into a new system.
“In my career, generally I’ve always had to try and keep weight on. So I probably put on a couple of kilos when I arrived, over two or three months. And that does change your game as well. It’s being a bit heavier and taking those bigger impacts.
“The game-plan that suited us as a team, we kicked the ball a lot, we’d chase and we’d defend well. And so it’s probably an even bigger emphasis on set-piece.
“It’s that and carrying on the front foot. There was definitely a big part of the season where I didn’t do as much carrying as I’d like, which is something we’ll probably try to push on next year with our attacking game at Montpellier.”
Thomas also talks of the power of perception. After being controversially handed a 28-0 win over Leinster during our Covid confusion and then succumbing to the same side 89-7, the Anglophone areas of Europe tutted loudly about Montpellier’s output in Europe. Then in the knockouts they gritted it out against Harlequins. The team knew they were capable of such results, but did outsiders?
The prop explains that there is likely an inherent misunderstanding of just how hard it is to compete in the Top 14 and in Europe. He also lets us in on the psyche of his side. He tells of a feeling at the club that they were written off in the indigenous press all season.
Now we can argue the toss about whether that was really the case or not, but what this underlines is that the group – who Thomas describes as full of belief – pulled together against a perceived common enemy: everyone else.
And what a domestic season it was. They had put on big winning runs and in the play-offs they hung tough and played right to their own strengths. It was as much a celebration of their units as it was of retiring heroes – with Fulgence Ouedraogo and Guilhem Guirado hanging up the spurs. And they won it all.
Of that day in Pariswe ask if Thomas felt a sense of vindication for his move to France.
“It probably felt that way during the season as well,” he says. “The way things were going at Bath, it wasn’t nice because you’ve got so many friends playing there, but the way things were left it was kind of vindication for me. And being here with Zach (Mercer), he kind of felt the same way.
“And with the final, it was my first trophy as a professional. A really proud moment was winning my caps with England, but then we lost in the 2015 (Premiership) final with Bath and something I’d always wanted to do was win silverware with a club, so that was really special.
“After the game it was just jubilation and excitement with all your team-mates – for winning such an important thing for the club. And for ourselves. It was probably on the Saturday afternoon or evening where it kind of really hit me. Where I was the season before.”
This Montpellier group have made history. In the most competitive club league in the world. In a thriving rugby nation.
Everyone reconvenes next month, for a shortened pre-season and a work trip to Corsica as a squad. Then it’s back into it; back into the hectic world of French club rugby. And Thomas could not be prouder that he has ended up there.
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