Mefin Davies: Delighted to end journey through the wilderness at Gloucester

Welsh hooker is glad to be back playing at the top level after months out in the cold
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OK, so maybe we weren't quite talking the Cratchit household, still feasting on the remnants of that pumped-up turkey while toasting Tiny Tim's good health, but when the Davieses of Pontypridd clinked glasses and linked arms last night it was undoubtedly one of the more uplifting family scenes in all of little Britain.

Indeed, it might be tempting to say that Mefin Davies was "the gayest man in the village", if Pontypridd didn't happen to be a town and Mefin didn't happen to be married with his first child on the way and not the type of person you'd want an argument about semantics with. You can safely say he was "the happiest man in the town", though.

Gainful employment has a way of spreading cheer, even when the paymasters are an enemy as loathed and feared as old Ebenezer himself. And in the cosmically-unlikely event that Gloucester's newest front-row member enjoys a nano-second's respite when Leicester come visiting tomorrow, he may well reflect on a year that was strange even by professional rugby's standards, when he established himself as his country's No 1 hooker yet still wound up unemployed for seven months before gleefully accepting the English shilling.

It all began in May, as Davies was celebrating a storming season's end for the Celtic Warriors, one of the five so-called "super regions" in Wales' brave, new domestic set-up. "It had been so bloody difficult trying to create a new identity for the Warriors from scratch," recalled Davies, "but it was our aim to qualify for the Heineken Cup in our first season and we did it with six victories in our last six matches. I'll never forget the party after our last win away to Connacht. It was big. Very big."

As hangovers go, however, the next morning's was Quinnell-sized when the call came that no Warrior had been expecting. "All the players were phoned to attend a meeting at a hotel, but we didn't know what the hell was going on," he said. "We were then told that the Welsh Rugby Union had bought the shares and were closing us down."

Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for open-mouthed shock to turn to foul-mouthed anger, especially when, the very next day, the players were lined up like cattle against the wall for the heads of the remaining "super clubs" to pick over. "The most distasteful thing about it all was that the other four regions had chipped in and paid towards getting rid of us," Davies said. "Not only did they see it as guaranteeing their own financial future but it also meant they had the choice of our best players as well."

Except it did not turn out like that as Welsh rugby set about eating itself. Indigestion was to send a loathsome belch reverberating around the Principality. The other regions had already committed the bulk of their budgets and in this diminished workplace contracts were suddenly as rare as scruples.

"A few were sorted but an awful lot weren't. There was plenty of talk of 'don't worry, redundancy will be paid', but that never happened. I still don't know why. We did have the players' union, but as a group we didn't know any different, didn't know what to do. We were lost."

From being a unit as tightly-knit as the Three Feathers, it was now each Warrior for himself, but as a vastly-experienced hooker who had collected 20-plus caps since his rather-belated debut for Wales two years before, the 32-year-old was not unduly concerned about his own future. "As a member of the Welsh squad I was pretty sure that the union would make sure all their internationals were alright," he said.

But then, as each region scanned down their lists to discover that Davies's was a specialist position they were already well-covered in, there was nothing but the most baffling inactivity from the WRU, which sat back and said "it's up to the regions who they select", despite holding the purse strings and having the power to assist its forgotten hooker. Talk about a kick in the regionals. Mefin was unemployed.

"It was great timing as I was getting married at the end of that month. Not only that, but straight after the wedding I had to go on a Welsh summer tour - and that make no sense at all to me. The WRU hadn't forced the issue in securing a deal for me, but still expected me to go to Argentina and South Africa. If I'd had an injury, I would have been fit for nobody and without a contract to fall back on."

Nevertheless, Davies went, partly out of pride in pulling on a Welsh jersey, partly "to put myself in the shop window". In the event, he was no mannequin, exhibiting himself rather well, so well in fact that the French giants Stade Français came in with an offer. "It was fantastic," he said. "Everything was appealing - the club, the money, the two-year contract. Except they wanted me to give up international rugby. As this was the only offer on the table, I went to the new Welsh coach Mike Ruddock and asked if I was in his plans. He said, 'yeah, I want you available,' but I said, 'well I haven't got a club'. He then told me he'd accept me playing Premiership rugby in Wales."

Now, "Premiership rugby in Wales" is not what it says on the tin, and certainly doesn't boast the wages, being the semi-professional feeder league. It was like Davies choosing the Ryman League over Serie A. "It was a massive, massive pay difference between the two. There's not much money being paid in the Premiership - it's peanuts. Friends urged me to go to Paris, saying 'take it, take it'. But then I would have been giving up playing for Wales forever."

So the Ryman League it was, with Neath the new, all-too literal "stamping ground" of a Welshman prepared to go back to his former employment as an electrical engineer to finance his supposed "professional" career.

"They were very hard times and I did get very low," he admitted. "I would train with Neath a few nights, go to work in Tondu for a few days and then for the rest of the week go training with the Welsh fitness coach, Andrew Hoare, who was brilliant. But it is hard to train when you've got bugger all to train for."

There was always the autumn internationals, a carrot that Davies was prepared to work like a donkey for, but then came Ruddock's team for South Africa and with it yet more heartbreak. "I was gutted only to make the bench, especially when the reason was that I hadn't been playing regional rugby, something that was so obviously not my fault. But this just made me even more determined to prove everyone wrong."

Davies came on against the Springboks and was one of the catalysts of the fightback that took Wales to within two points of the Tri-Nations champions. He was back in the starting XV against Romania and, crucially, for the visit of the All Blacks. "Yeah, it was obviously a huge leap in intensity to the Premiership, but I just put my head down and thought 'hey, let's sink or swim'."

He swam so gloriously that it made an even bigger sham of the farce that here was a first-rate performer having to parade himself on rugby's smallest stages. "Fortunately, after the autumn Tests, the Neath-Swansea Ospreys had a few out and called me up to the bench for the Heineken Cup match with Harlequins," he said. "I was only being paid on a week-to-week basis but at least I was playing top-flight club rugby again. I ended playing the majority of that match and then the entire game the next week when we beat Harlequins in London."

Davies failed to mention he was magnificent that day, but no matter because Gloucester had spies watching. An injury crisis had left them short at No 2 and they couldn't believe their luck that someone like Davies was available. With the Welsh coach's blessing - and much to the relief of the WRU who were long past blushing and even had the temerity to issue one last "don't blame us" plea - Davies was on his way over the Severn, joining the ever-swelling legion of Welsh exiles who include Colin Charvis at Newcastle and Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas in France. The saga was not over yet though.

"When I was driving up to Gloucester I had a call from the Ospreys offering me an 18-month contract," he said. "It was the typical tale of no buses, then two. But despite them offering a better package [his contract with Gloucester only runs to the end of the season], I said 'thanks but no thanks'. I was grateful to the Ospreys, but I'd said yes to Gloucester. It was a question of principles."

Principles? After what Davies has been through, it is incredible he still remembers what they are, but he is adamant he made the correct decision. "I am so impressed at the professionalism here. After my first match up at Leicester a fortnight ago, I was more than happy, having gone on the road to a place like that [Welford Road] and won. But then Nigel Melville came in and bollocked us for 'under-performing'. Unbelievable! They're the standards I have to get used to."

And make no mistake, he is. The coach's castigation was in no way pointed at the new man, who observers confirm was as effective in Monday's defeat at Wasps as he had been against the Tigers. Leicester will be chasing revenge tomorrow as The Shed gets its first glimpse of their Taff in West Countrymen's clothing. It's yet another proving ground for Davies. "I'm getting used to them," he says.