Keith Elliott at Large: Dragon goes for the burn: A former Cardiff rugby winger now displays his fancy footwork in aerobics

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ANY Cardiff rugby fans holidaying in New Orleans this week could be in for a nasty shock if, attracted by the whistles and cheering, they wander into the Municipal Auditorium.

In 1985, a Port Talbot winger took the club by storm. The blistering pace of Graham Davies, a junior international 400 metres hurdler, left even top forwards snatching at air. A dozen games into the season he was the country's leading try-scorer. Hardened boyos were nodding sagely and mouthing the word 'international'. But then the young hope was badly injured in a tackle that left him needing a ligament replacement. He never played for the club again.

This is going to hurt those who believe that the Arms Park is the centre of the universe: Davies not only recovered, but became one of the fittest men in Wales. However, instead of giving his heart and soul at a time when his country needed it most, he was seduced by aerobics. To make it worse, he persuaded a lot of Welshmen to take up aerobics, too.

Yes, aerobics. Prancing round to Jane Fonda videos in garish swimming costumes. Eating lettuce leaves and drinking carrot juice instead of mutton pies and pints of Allbright. Grinning inanely all the time. It's enough to make Graham Price take up ballet.

'Yes, it's a good job I'm married with a couple of children,' chuckled Davies, who confessed that he would have loved to have been a ballet dancer himself. 'There are people in the game who are a little . . .' He leaves the sentence unfinished.

Even before Davies went to Cardiff, he was running aerobics classes. Surely he must have been the butt of none-too-subtle remarks from his burly team-mates? 'No, I hardly got any stick from them. They had seen what I could do and it was something that they couldn't'

It is easy to sneer at aerobics, the sport of portly matrons wobbling to music. But it does not merely attract the overweight. Although it has been going for less than 20 years, Aerobics and Fitness World magazine estimates that around five million take part in some form of aerobics every week in the UK. The Sports Council puts the figure nearer eight million - about 15 per cent of the population. It may well be a demonstration sport at the 1996 Olympics.

At Davies's level, of course, it bears little resemblance to waving your arms while hopping on and off a wooden box. Seventh in the Suzuki World Cup in Japan earlier this year, he trains at least three hours a day (never mind his work as a lecturer in sports studies at Neath College). His 1min 45sec competitive routines are designed by a top choreographer and include manoeuvres such as touching his toes while doing a press-up.

Now 33, Davies only started competitive aerobics two years ago. 'A couple of girls in one of my classes persuaded me to enter the Welsh Championships. It was a disaster. I turned up all in black, wearing cycling shorts, and forgot my choreography. Afterwards, Diana Moran (TV-am's Green Goddess), who gave feedback on the performances, told me: 'Keep your name and change everything else.' '

But he still finished second out of three (goodness knows what the third-placed competitor was like) and qualified for the Reebok UK Championships. Changing his outfit and his routine, he earned a bronze. 'From that moment I was hooked. I started training for the next year's championships. I watched waltzes, aerobics videos and even Come Dancing for ideas.' He took silver, just 4.5 points behind the winner and later was second in the German Open, beaten only by the world champion.

This year he again picked up the individual silver in the UK Championships, but also won team gold and qualified for the world championships, which started yesterday in New Orleans.

'The trouble is that I came into competitive aerobics fairly late, so I reckon that I've only got another year or so,' Davies said. 'The sport is moving ahead so fast that it's very hard for the judges to keep up with the skill factor.' It is also becoming more a strength sport. The sylph-like dancer is being replaced by an athlete capable of one-armed press-ups.

But for a man who has tasted the adrenalin that comes from playing first-class rugby what is the appeal of exercising to music, even if it is against other people? 'I have never done anything so demanding. Aerobics contains so many aspects. You need flexibility, speed, agility, the ability to interpret music. And visually it is a great sport.'

You can say that again. His oufit for the world championships is a white Lycra number, which would have prompted remarks from even his most understanding ex-team- mates. Down in the valleys he wears shorts for classes. They are not ready for white Lycra yet, but Davies' crusade for a fitter lifestyle is paying off.

'In a class of 30, 10 will now be men. For South Wales that's quite an achievement,' he said. And if it is any consolation to his former drinking mates, he plans to celebrate with a display of clog-dancing if he gets among the medals tomorrow.