Rugby Union: Davies' loyalty on the record: Cup final

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The Independent Online
DURING a long and sometimes turbulent career, the fortunes of Phil Davies have soared and plunged rather like the line-out jumper he has latterly become. So it has been a long time in coming that now, in the autumn of his rugby days, he is recognised as the bedrock on which Welsh forward play is built.

Through it all, the 30-year- old No 8-turned-lock has been lucky to have had Llanelli as his rugby refuge. If there had been any self-pity at the constant battles for international re-establishment, it was shaken out of Davies at Stradey Park - giving games such as this afternoon's Swalec Cup final at the Arms Park a special, sentimental significance for him.

'Playing for a big club like Llanelli, you can't afford to let your commitment go down because the competition for places is always so severe,' he said. 'One way and another I've had a lot of ups and downs with injuries and other frustrations but I've always fought back and I've always been immensely fortunate to have the club to sustain me.'

Davies' appearance against Cardiff will be his seventh in the final, a record figure established by Alan Phillips, the former Cardiff and Wales hooker, from 1977-87 and equalled today by his team- mates Ieuan Evans and Nigel Davies, as well. If the Scarlets run off with the trophy, Davies will create an outright personal record by being on the winning side six times. Four times he led the Scarlets in finals.

These are statistics indicative of durability and loyalty but it is not doing Davies a disservice to suggest that down the years since his final debut - coincidentally against Cardiff in 1985 - he has had his doubters, those who have wondered whether he had sufficient strength of character (though never of body).

Occasionally he has not helped himself. In 1990, for instance, he announced he was retiring from representative rugby. Twenty-seven being rather too young for such a drastic step, the self-imposed exile proved temporary, though his tendency to disillusionment was scarcely lessened by Wales' demoralised retreat from Australia in 1991 when once again he pondered long and hard about his future.

Three years on and he has emerged a better - and wiser - player than he ever was. His stock is such that some time after Wales had distressingly lost to Canada in November, Alan Davies, the coach, admitted he should have risked a half-fit Davies rather than leaving him on the bench. His subsequent contribution to Wales's championship earned him acclaim from friend and foe alike.

Davies is greatly honoured and mildly embarrassed. 'It may sound corny but this is a team game and it's never all about one person. But I was pleased with the effort I put in, first to get back in the Welsh side and then make a success of it once I got there. The main thing for a rugby player is to gain the respect of his team- mates and opponents and I'm delighted that I've done that.'

He had begun the season with a back injury that took too long to heal because it took too long to diagnose, and ended the Five Nations with a pulled hamstring which impeded him when Wales lost to England at Twickenham. He probably should not have played; it was a measure of his talismanic properties that, even so, he did.

Barring further mishap, Davies will equal Graham Price's Welsh forward caps' record, 41, in a humble setting when Wales play their World Cup qualifying fixture against Spain in Madrid in a fortnight and move on to 42 in Fiji in June. His immediate focus, however, is on the Arms Park today and how to ensure Llanelli improve on what, the cup aside, has been a grievously disappointing season.

After the glorious rugby which swept them to last season's league and cup double, doubtless it was too much to expect more of the same. On the other hand, Llanelli are the only club around who have open, attacking rugby written into their constitution. 'It's just impossible to sustain week in, week out,' Davies said.

'It's all very well if you are a soccer player and can rest up but it's different when you're working.' In this regard, Davies acknowledges himself as a lucky one. A former policeman, he has become a marketing executive and receives ample free time from a benevolent employer.

He added: 'It's been said by many people that there are only so many big games in a player each year and this is what has happened to us after last season and with Llanelli's heavy involvement in the Wales set-up.

'I want to play for Wales until the end of next year's World Cup and then, before retiring altogether, enjoy some club rugby for a while with the pressure off. I'd like to go into a coaching capacity, but whether that will be with Llanelli I don't know.

'You look at the young players, people like Scott Quinnell who's only 21, and you have to ask how long their international career span will be. I've been in the squad 10 years but I'm beginning to wonder how many of the boys coming through now will last that long.' Not many, to be sure - but then there aren't many like Phil Davies.

(Photograph omitted)