Re-enter the dragon

while the wizard of Wales rehearses his league exit lines before stepping on the gangway to be part of the union again; Peter Corrigan meets a codebreaker whose World Cup may be his farewell
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THE Rugby League World Cup is in danger of being claimed by Jonathan Davies as the scene of his last hurrah before he re- crosses the Rubicon. If the International Rugby Board's newly acquired appetite for making history persuades them to break down the barriers between the codes, Davies will be hoping that this will be his farewell to the game he has graced for nearly seven years.

In some ways it is to be regretted that Great Britain will not be playing in the opening match against Australia at Wembley. Davies could then reawaken memories of the spectacular try which helped Britain win the first Test against Australia just under 12 months ago. But one of the many consequences of his time in rugby league has been the reformation of the Welsh team which he leads into these finals as European champions.

Despite being included in a very difficult group with France and Western Samoa, Wales have the players and the confidence to reach the semi-final. "Once there," Davies argues, "we'll have been fully tested and anything can happen. I really believe in our chances."

Inevitably, what is about to happen to Davies is bound to command the attention. For him to return with honour to Cardiff Arms Park would complete a circle that hundreds of Welsh rugby outcasts throughout the century have dreamed of only in their wildest fantasies. Their homecoming would have brought them nothing but vilification. He will be welcomed as a hero, a messiah even. The former Welsh captain John Dawes has already demanded that Davies be immediately reinstated as Welsh captain for the Five Nations' Championship.

Davies has not been allowing himself to think that far ahead. He has received a fusillade of offers from union clubs over the past week, the most attractive coming from Harlequins. Newcastle's new director of rugby, Rob Andrew, has acknowledged him as the finest fly-half in the world and several Welsh clubs have contacted him.

Cardiff remain the favourite because theirs are the firmest ambitions and prospects and because the Welsh capital offers the coaching, media and business opportunities Davies wants to pursue with an eye to his eventual retirement.

"When I went to league in 1989 it was a decision made with my head," he said last week. "If I go back to union, the decision will be made with my heart. We want to come home to Wales and this is the right time for me."

Whether Warrington agree with that will be revealed this week when terms for Davies's release from his contract will be discussed. Among the many aspects of the move to be taken into consideration is how much longer he can play top-level rugby of either sort. It is not belittling union to say that he would last longer in that code than in league.

He doesn't regard union as the softer option - he hasn't been away that long that he has forgotten what it is like to be at the bottom of a ruck - but the physical natures of the games are different. In league, bodily contact is more regular and often harder. A player takes, and gives, more direct hits.

"Rugby league is a great game and I've been privileged to play in excellent teams and to have achieved so much," Davies says. "But in my time here the game has become much faster and tougher. The players are fitter and more athletic. But the real difference has come with the introduction of the four substitutes rule.

"Previously you could depend on the pace slackening in the later stages of a game and you could pick out the players getting tired. That's when the creative players come into their own. Now, anyone flagging gets replaced by someone fresh. Therefore, the pace never lets up and for a player like me who is on the field for the full 80 minutes the physical demands are much greater.

"I've already announced my retirement from international rugby league after the World Cup and I was already considering how long I could go on at club level. I am sure that moving to union would prolong my career. I know the game can be just as hard but I would be able to cope better with the different demands."

There is also the question of motivation. "These are exciting times for both codes but, let's face it, none of us are going to challenge Wigan for a season or two," he said. "But it is a new era in union. A club like Cardiff can achieve so much in Wales and Europe."

Davies was in Cardiff last night - to join the Welsh squad in training for their opening match against France a week tomorrow. "Whatever happens, these are my last games for the Welsh rugby league team. I'll be sorry to leave such a terrific set of players. We've built a great side over the last couple of years and we're all desperate to do well for Wales. Everything else can wait."