Rob Brydon: Federer said no... so I had to ask Jonathan Davies
Jonathan Davies (he of the 'cheeky little face') tells Rob Brydon about how it all began, his move to league and his new role on the box. Rob Brydon interviews Jonathan Davies
Friday 23 March 2012
I was never especially keen on rugby as a child growing up during the 1970s in Port Talbot. It was a golden period for the Welsh team and I went to my share of matches but that was where it stopped. On the playing field at school I stayed as far away from the ball as possible, terrified of the studs on the boots of the other players who seemed and undoubtedly were bigger than me. It's only in the last 10 years that I've developed an interest in and perhaps even a love of the game. An ideal Saturday afternoon is now spent on the sofa watching the BBC's coverage of the Six Nations, my favourite element being Jonathan Davies.
His enthusiasm, authority, his cheeky little face are all a delight and though we've met a few times over the years, even playing golf together once (he was very good: he went birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie, water at one point), we've never sat down and had a chat. When David Walliams asked if there was a sportsperson I'd like to interview, I didn't hesitate to say Roger Federer. When it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, I got straight on the phone to Jonathan.
When I meet him at Heathrow on the Monday after Wales's Grand Slam win over France, he's still buzzing. Towering over me at an impressive 5ft 8in, he's about to board a plane to the Hong Kong Sevens but his mind is still very much in Wales. Cardiff, he says, had been overflowing with French fans. "A taxi driver said 'I've just dropped off some French boys last night by the Neath junction on the M4, because that's the only place they could stay'." I tell him I can imagine some canny hotelier in Neath on the phone saying: "Oh, yes, it's no distance at all. You're virtually in the stadium..." As anyone who knows Wales knows, Neath is a distance from Cardiff.
It's also where Davies began his rugby career, having been rejected by his local club, Llanelli. Born in 1962, he grew up in Trimsaran, a mining village not far from the home of the Scarlets and played for their youth team, following in the talented footsteps of his father. Tragically Len Davies would never see his only son play the game on the big stage.
"When I was playing for Trimsaran my dad had liver cancer. He was the first Welshman ever to have a liver transplant. But we didn't have any money so Trimsaran Rugby Club had a raffle every Saturday and gave the money to my mother, because my dad used to be captain. Then came the crunch decision: play for the school or in a Trimsaran Youth semi-final against Felinfoel, a local derby. They clashed and I had to make a choice but there was no choice. My teacher found out and I was banned ... so I left school and became a painter and decorator".
A painter and decorator? Jonathan Davies? "I knew I wasn't cut out for it when I pasted the wrong side of the anaglypta..."
He soon put down the brush and made the switch to mining, "I thought I'd work there for 25 years, every day, six until six." I'm a little shocked by the hours, six until six? "Yeah, Monday to Friday, and then six til 12 on a Saturday, and then I went to play for Neath after that."
He flourished at Neath. I've often wondered when it is that elite sportsmen realise they're special. Davies knew it at Neath, playing against Bridgend, "I threw the ball in to the scrum and told my opposite number 'I'm going to score in the corner'. He went 'oh yeah, yeah', and I ran and just scored in the corner. It was weird, for a spell I just felt untouchable."
The national team beckoned and he scored what he describes as a "lucky" try on his debut, a victory against England.
At the same time he was fielding calls from rugby league clubs, eager to lure him north. He resisted temptation and joined his original choice, Llanelli, a side with a style more suited to his own.
But his rugby life reached a crossroads after a disastrous Welsh tour of New Zealand in 1988, the team suffering crushing defeats. "We got smashed but they were the best team I've ever seen. I realised we weren't on the same level. They were sort of semi-pros with different facilities. They were more athletic. Some of our players were losing money playing for Wales – they were paying managers to run their farms..."
Farmers? How many farmers were playing?! "A couple. I thought, 'if we don't change things in the northern hemisphere we're never going to catch up'. But they wouldn't listen and I knew then that Wales weren't going to win anything in 15 years. Then the rugby league boys came down and I thought the best thing to do for my family was to take the security and go..." And go he did, to Widnes for a world-record fee. It took a little while to adjust but he threw himself into it and was a success on and off the field.
There were spells for the Bulldogs in Sydney and the Queensland Cowboys, during the British summer months while playing for his then club Warrington. In 1995 he returned to Wales because of his desire to play union and the game turning professional but most importantly the health of his wife Karen, who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Bringing the family home, he joined Cardiff and played for Wales again before knee trouble forced him to quit.
He has moved effortlessly into his role as pundit. He's such a familiar sight now, especially in Wales where he hosts a rugby-based chat show, Jonathan, on S4C. For the rest of the land he's known for his pre- and post-match huddles with John Inverdale and Jerry Guscott and it's a role he loves. "It's good fun because Jerry's laid back so he'll sit there and I'll do the analysis because he'd rather enjoy his Jaffa Cakes at half-time."
And Inverdale? "Well, John thinks he knows more than us, so he'll ask a question and answer at the same time. There's a constant battle, because it's 'England's tournament'. I say 'come on, John, you're going for the plate'. And he says: 'well, actually it's a bowl'. Bowl, plate, whatever!"
He's enjoying the current Welsh team and is a fan of Warren Gatland. "He's very clever. There's an element of mental toughness with the ice bath training in Poland. There was a soft underbelly to Welsh rugby years ago. Not now, he's sorted that with this bunch of lads."
Davies himself would seem to have great strength of mind, dealing with the loss of his father and then the death of his first wife while their three children were still young. "You have a mental toughness ... when you're stuck in a hospital lift in Cambridge, your Dad says 'bye' and you don't know if you're going to see him again, it instils toughness in you."
Davies remarried and credits Helen with much of his contentment. They have a daughter, Molly. He lists the ages of his four children; they range from 23 down to eight. Sensing a competition I can win, I point out that I have a total of five children and he wastes no time in reminding me of his vasectomy: "I can't have any more!" I tell him that I thought he'd had it reversed... "I had it, I had it reversed and had it done again. There's a surgeon in Cardiff with a house in Spain on my bollocks! Brian Rees. Brilliant man. One window closes another one opens. And I think that's what you've got to look for in life."
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