Rugby Union: Davies plots his revenge: Richard Williams hears how the Welsh coach plans to outmanoeuvre England

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The Independent Online
THE LAST time Wales beat England at Twickenham, in 1988, Alan Davies was a troubled figure on the periphery of England's coaching staff. 'What happened before that game causes me to think that they owe me one,' he said last week, as he looked ahead with quiet relish to next Saturday's match, in which his Welsh team will be going for the Grand Slam, the Triple Crown and the Five Nations' Championship - at England's expense.

Six years ago, when Davies was the highly successful England B- team coach, he helped the first- team management, Geoff Cooke and Roger Uttley, to prepare or the Welsh match by giving them a detailed confidential report on the players of both sides. 'That confidential report was actually photocopied and given out to the team,' he remembered. 'So I had a fair bit of credibility to rescue after that with some of the players who were quite close to me.'

Davies and Cooke parted company in 1990, with Davies eventually returning to Wales - where he was born, in the village of Ynysybwl, 49 years ago - to pick up the poisoned chalice of the national team. Cooke, of course, went on to the famous back-to- back Grand Slams of 1991-92, while Davies struggled to survive in the at-home-with-the-Borgias atmosphere of Welsh rugby. Now, as is the way of things, their positions are reversed: Davies goes to Twickenham on the brink of Wales's first Grand Slam since 1978, while Cooke prepares to say farewell to the England squad, the motives for his resignation tainted, so it's said, by his disillusionment with internal opposition.

I asked Davies if he identified with the words of the late Sophie Tucker, who once observed: 'I've been rich and I've been poor - and believe me, rich is better.'

'I'm accused of being pretty calm, outwardly,' he replied, 'although I'm not actually calm inside. I put that down to a certain attitude. Over the years I've never walked into anywhere that's been successful at the time, or had players who were on top of their game and feeling confident. I've had to deal with defeat more than success, and I think it's made me highly professional in my approach, so the difference between me on the Monday morning after France and me on the Monday morning after Canada wasn't phenomenal.'

Ah, Canada. How different it all looked before Christmas, when England had just beaten the mighty All Blacks before an ecstatic Twickenham while Wales had lost at home to a collection of Canadian reserves. Geoff Cooke seemed to have set England on course for the 1995 World Cup, while it was common knowledge in Wales that Davies's future hung on a single result - that of the first Five Nations game, against Scotland. Well, Wales beat the Scots easily, and then the Irish, by the width of the upright, and then, resoundingly, the French. These days, walking to work at Morgan Bruce, the Cardiff-based law firm for which he is director of marketing, hasn't Alan Davies discovered a lot of new friends?

'Actually, the things that have been said in the past, about whether I should be the coach or not, aren't consistent with the way I've been treated by the public,' he said. 'I've always been treated extremely well. The neighbours are brilliant, the people I meet in the pub, the businessmen I meet in Cardiff and Swansea, they're highly supportive. So it's very hard to feel as though I'm on my own.'

But what about the dreaded committee men, whose knives were poised in January?

'Yes, well, those relationships are associations with people. They're not what I call genuine relationships. They're not people that I see a lot of, and they congratulate me when we win, and I guess they'll say hard luck when we lose. I hope. But it doesn't really make any difference to me.'

The esoteric techniques of psychology seem to hold as much fascination as the tactical blackboard for a man who talks about coaching rugby in terms of Competitive Benchmarking, Total Quality Management, and International Player Lifestyle Management. These, it transpires, are the tools with which he and his helpers - manager Bob Norster and assistant coach Gareth Jenkins - have rebuilt the Welsh team, and in the light of recent results it's a lot harder to sound sceptical of their influence than it was in January.

'Competitive Benchmarking,' he explained, 'is about seeing how good your competitors are, and working out what you've got to do to be as good as them - which is what we've done all along with England, accepting them as the benchmark, ever since I came down in '91, having worked in the English system. They had a lot of good things in place which we needed to copy. Mostly it was the organisation off the field. The scientific fitness approach wasn't there at all. The physio set-up. The psychological support. The interface between the governing body and the team through the management and the coach. That sort of thing.'

And have they reached England's benchmark?

'Off the field, we've actually passed it. In some aspects we're ahead of them. But then other countries become the benchmark now. Australia, particularly.'

What Total Quality Management means is that everyone - players, physios, ball-boys - has a part to play, a chance to use their initiative and powers of observation. 'In home matches,' Davies says, 'Neil Jenkins has a responsibility to select the right balls, picking five out of a batch of 20. They're the same model, but they're all slightly different shapes. Even the replacements have a role, observing practice and making comments on what they see. The ball-boys have the responsibility to get the sand on properly when a kick's being taken. Everybody's part of the success of the team.'

Perhaps the best way to explain the application to rugby of a Japanese industrial doctrine may be through the story of the green stockings which Wales mysteriously donned in place of their usual red ones against France, whose socks are also red.

'We've all got the responsibility to look for details that will enable us to improve the quality of the performance,' Davies explained. 'One of my observations was the socks - it came to me when we played France at the National Stadium in 1992, and I saw that Robert Jones was having trouble getting the ball away. I noticed on the video that the French were tangling up the ball with their legs, and there was no way we would know whose legs they were because the socks were almost exactly the same colour. So we changed them. And it's a good job we did, because the touch judge put the flag up when Scott Quinnell scored his try, and the reason he put it up was that there was a red sock over the touchline.' The flag came down when the line judge realised his error.

What Davies calls International Player Lifestyle Management, involving the use of psychometric testing on individuals, may have been even more crucial. 'The key thing Bob Norster and I started out with was a belief that if we develop the individual, we develop the rugby player,' Davies said. 'It's something that's happened over two years, not just from January to March. It helps a player to get to know himself better, and me to get to know him better.' At Morgan Bruce, he applies these techniques to the company's employees. 'Take someone who may exude a social presence, but actually would prefer to withdraw and do their work in the privacy of their office - if you want them to go out and promote the firm, you have to help them overcome that tendency to withdraw. The same thing happens to players. Under pressure, a player may want to withdraw.' Ieuan Evans, due to set a new record for the number of appearances as a Welsh captain next Saturday, is a case in point. 'He's worked hard to overcome his tendency to be a loner. He's grown considerably, as an individual and a player. Gareth Llewellyn, too, is a totally different person. Not in his character - he's still his own man - but the Gareth Llewellyn that I met two years ago is not the same Gareth Llewellyn now. Most of this requires individual attention, of course, and it's very time-consuming.'

More basic Lifestyle Management was applied in the case of young Scott Quinnell, one of the finds of the season, who was confronted by Davies last season and told that he was too fat and had to lose weight if he wanted to be an international. 'There's a lot of hereditary talent there, and nobody could doubt his skill or his commitment, but he would have lasted 20 minutes in a proper game. I talked to him about it, and then his father emphasised it. His club was supportive, too. And he's a very bright personality. No problem.'

Davies's interest in psychology certainly encompasses an awareness of the impact of his public statements upon his own players and those of the opposition. This adds an enigmatic edge to his lyrical praise of Wales's potential ('There's no reason why this squad can't get to the semi-finals of the World Cup') and to his suggestion that the recent rule changes have benefited his team, with their emphasis on avoiding contact through speed and natural skill, while damaging the English with their crash-bang tactics. When I asked him to describe the collective character of his team, there was a shrewdness in his suggestion that he'd like to see them develop 'a certain modesty that people have accused Welsh teams of not having in the past. Maybe that wasn't fair, but certainly English people have been put down in the past by the Welsh, and I'd like this team to grow in humility and not to treat victory as a means for putting another human being down. I take great exception to people who scorn the opposition.'

All of which assumes that this Welsh team is going to need all its reserves of modesty, come tea- time on Saturday. So, in an atmosphere boiling with premature euphoria, what's he going to tell them before the kick-off?

'I don't know yet. The big thing about this game is trying to remove all the stuff that is not to do with rugby. I tend to talk to the players as much as I can in the days before the game, to find out what's going on in their heads and to pick up on a theme. There'll be something that's running through all of them. I have to find out what it is and either remove it from their heads or accentuate it.'

As for himself, Davies is putting the bad memory of 1988 to constructive use. 'There are lots of things about this game that suggest that the star signs are coming right,' he said. 'The Good Lord might be about to say, 'Okay, Alan, we'll give you this one.' It'll be a great day, and I've just got the feeling that one or two of our players . . . well, one or two are going to survive and do a really good job, but one or two others are going to come of age. They need this test. Neil Jenkins is one of them. He's not going to be the shaky, jittery, clucking chicken he was when he played there two years ago. And that's going to win us the game.'

(Photograph omitted)

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