Rugby Union: Davies and Llanelli handle barracking

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The Independent Online
A SPELL in a "boot camp" has put Nigel Davies on the brink of appearing in a record ninth Welsh Cup final and his side, Llanelli, on the verge of a unique treble when they meet Swansea in the club showpiece occasion at Ninian Park on Saturday.

Davies, the Wales and Llanelli centre who first played in a cup final in 1985, has already run out in an unparalleled eight finals - one more than his former Stradey Park clubmates Ieuan Evans and Phil Davies. A back problem has left him and the club fretting over his fitness to make it nine when the Swalec Cup holders defend their crown and try to add it to the two trophies they have already won this season. Davies is adamant that he will not jeopardise Llanelli's chances if he is not fully fit. "I should be available, but if I don't feel right I will tell them," said the durable 34-year-old.

Llanelli will be chasing an 11th triumph in their 14th appearance in the final and Davies believes that their success this season - they have won the Challenge Trophy and the Premier Division title - can be traced back to a crisis weekend get-together last summer. "Our problems at the time, including low morale and financial difficulties, have been well documented," said Davies. "At times I would turn up at training and there would be only three or four other backs and it was obvious something had to be done.

"As far as I am concerned, the watershed was when coach Gareth Jenkins arranged a pre-season weekend away at an army camp in Pembrokeshire. We could have gone to a luxury seaside hotel, but instead we went for the most desolate and austere setting possible in order fully to focus our minds. While it was partly a training camp, it was also a soul-searching, brain-storming break. There was plenty of hard talking, the setting of goals and targets, and how they would be achieved.

"When we arrived some of the boys were pretty horrified. We slept four to a room - and they were your basic barrack rooms. Everyone had to make their own beds, we ate with the military people stationed at the camp, and did our fitness tests in a huge hangar. A tremendous amount of good came out of the three days and I feel that from that has come our winning the league, the Challenge Trophy and reaching the cup final."

The final leg of an unprecedented treble now beckons, one better than their cup and league double of 1993, in what is being billed as the loyalists versus the rebels. Swansea, and Cardiff, opted out of the Welsh League this season and the cup is the All Whites' sole chance of domestic honours as they face a side who humbled Cardiff 39-10 in the semi-final.

The pounds 126m redevelopment of Cardiff Arms Park means the clash of the fierce West Wales rivals will pack Ninian Park to its 14,500 capacity. "The rivalry between the clubs is more between the residents of Llanelli and Swansea than the players - a match between the Scarlets and the All Whites really doesn't need any extra spice added," said Davies.

"We expected a harder fight from Cardiff, but we are fully aware that Swansea have an exceptionally strong team spirit, that they play for each other and have a powerful identity with the club. On paper it looks a cracker of a match and I hope it lives up to its potential. We will have to perform at our peak to beat them.

"I haven't really thought about making it to a ninth cup final - I still have to be selected - and if I did dwell on the matter it would frighten the life out of me. But your first final is always the special one, at the time I was just delighted to play in one.

"Most people remember it for Gary Pearce's late drop goal that clinched it against Cardiff but it was also a superbly entertaining game. I was in college at the time and I travelled to Cardiff by train with some friends. In those days we had bright red track suits and when we arrived a bit early we decided to go to a pub. I had an orange juice, but in that track suit I stood out and when I started getting some strange looks from supporters, a player in a pub just before a cup final, I headed off to join the rest of the team.

"The other I remember really well is when there were 57,000, then a world record for a club game, for our 1988 final against Neath. Jonathan Davies had recently joined us from Neath and there was a lot of speculation about what his old team-mates were going to do to him - the Neath players even sent him a so-called good luck card." The only luck Davies needs now is with his fitness.