Home again at No 10

The most famous shirt in rugby will have a familiar feel as Wales welcomes back a favourite son against Australia; Jonathan Davies says his recall today has rekindled all the old emotions
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The Independent Online
What I am looking forward to most this afternoon is singing the national anthem and trying to spot my wife Karen and my son Scott in the stand. Only at that moment will I believe it is all happening, and I will be very relieved. Not because of the eight years that have passed since I last had that honour but because of the five days of ballyhoo I've had to endure since I was selected.

The pressures the Australians will undoubtedly create this afternoon will be very difficult to deal with but at least I'll be familiar with those. In my two spells playing rugby league in Australia I've developed a great admiration for their competitive attitude to sport. We could learn a lot from what is without doubt the nation most dedicated to the art of winning. I don't want to tempt providence but I have got a good record against them. I was in the Welsh team who beat Australia 22-21 to finish third in the 1987 rugby union World Cup and scored the winning try against their famous rugby league side for Great Britain at Wembley two years ago - it's my favourite try because you don't get many like that against the Kangaroos.

But much as I've been looking forward to tangling with them again, I've found it almost impossible to get used to the sheer weight of public expectation. Not that I'm complaining. The Welsh No 10 shirt has always been the the heaviest in the world and I'm delighted to be wearing it again. It is just that during the eight years since I last put it on I'd forgotten the intensity that comes with it.

You would think, reading the reports, that I've spent those years dreaming of this comeback. For most of that time it was a prospect hardly worth contemplating. A month or so after I left Wales for rugby league in 1989 the Welsh Rugby Union refused to let me conduct a television interview on the Arms Park touchline, so the chance of them ever letting me step on the pitch was non-existent. I would find it easier to get a game on the moon.

Even when I came back a year ago, I didn't feel as if a Welsh place was a realistic hope. The WRU had helped to bring me back and gave me a job in their commercial department but I'm sure they saw me as more of an ambassador than a candidate for the team. I would not have argued. There were plenty of people calling for me to be put straight back into international action and I risked appearing to be unpatriotic by protesting about this.

I had too much respect for the Welsh shirt and those who wore it to think I could stroll back in as a right. I was far more concerned at how I would cope with returning to a game I had left far behind. I was the first to be given the chance of coming back and I was very uncertain about the outcome.

It didn't help that I needed two operations within the first two months and when I did play I just could not fit into Cardiff's tactical pattern. Not being able to play at outside-half and be a central figure in the team's tactical approach left me a very marginal figure and, as I've tried to explain in my new book*, I felt there was a reluctance to involve me in the action.

I really did come very close to retirement at that time. I was caught in a trap I couldn't escape from and people were queueing up to tell me I was a spent force. More importantly, Karen's illness had brought a new priority to my life and it would have been a relief to step away from the misery I was experiencing in rugby.

But even though I finished the season on the Cardiff replacements' bench I thought I would see how I felt after a much- needed summer break. I had been in constant rugby action for more than 21 months; from August 1994 to May 1996. I started with Warrington, played in Australian rugby league with North Queensland Cowboys and ended in union with Cardiff. Along the way I had played for Great Britain and captained Wales in the World Cup.

The rest, and Karen's improvement, did me the world of good. When the season started again, I found it was easier to cope with being regarded as all washed up than to be hailed as a Messiah. Although Cardiff had a bad start I found that playing regularly at outside-half and being involved with the coaching had given me a new appetite. And as Cardiff have bonded together with each game I have recovered all my old enthusiasm. The European Cup has been a great success for everyone but it has been a bigger boost to Cardiff than to any club. For me, it has been a salvation and it has brought me back to an enjoyment level I thought had gone for ever.

It is because I am enjoying it so much that I feel confident about my return. When Kevin Bowring and Terry Cobner were put in charge of Welsh rugby a year ago I liked the way they talked about the game but didn't think I could be of practical help. Now I think I can and, happily, they think so too. Kevin believes I have the experience and tactical vision to help the team at this stage and I shall do my best to justify that confidence.

I regret that Neil Jenkins has to make way but we are good friends and he understands the situation. At least he is getting a rest from the burden of occupying the spotlight and all the stick that goes with it. And all of a sudden lots of people are coming forward to support him. That shows how fickle supporters can be and the show of faith might well work in his favour when he returns, as he undoubtedly will.

I'm not the same player who relinquished that precious shirt eight years ago but what I've lost in some way I've gained in others. The game isn't the same either but the principal aim remains unaltered - set up a secure platform and make the most of every opportunity that comes. It helps if you see the opportunity before the opposition does. I hope I can still spot those openings. And if I can't respond to it myself, I've got plenty of strong and swift young men around me who can.

*`Code Breaker', by Jonathan Davies with Peter Corrigan; published by Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99.