Rugby Union / Five Nations Countdown: Defeat worse for Davies than Wales: A coach's fate is in his players' hands tomorrow. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
HIS PLAYERS hold their coach's fate in their hands - and on their feet - as Alan Davies realises all too well. Whatever the standard of their performance, if Wales lose to Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park tomorrow he could abruptly become their ex-coach.

Such is the lot of the national coach as he broils in the pressure-cooker that is Welsh rugby. Every so often the pressure grows so great that it explodes and another career ends in smithereens. Since Wales put on the 1988 Triple Crown, Tony Gray, John Ryan and Ron Waldron have all come and gone. And then there was Alan Davies, with the team manager, Robert Norster, and latterly the assistant coach, Gareth Jenkins, valiantly sharing the strain.

'What the coaching set-up of the recent past has been like is a magician who gets up, waves his magic wand and if the magic doesn't work they kick him out and get another magician,' Davies said. 'When I got involved, the whole structure seemed to be the responsibility of the coach, and if things failed the coach went and the structure went and a new one had to be established.

'It's not the first time we've been under threat. In our first championship season, we were told by the media we would not be reappointed if we didn't beat Scotland - which we did. Given all the variables of a rugby match, I wonder how many people would wish to rest their future on guys who are playing a game ostensibly for fun.'

Fun? That went out of the game, or certainly the Welsh part of it, a long time ago. For Davies coaching Wales was less fun and more a life commitment after he was persuaded to revise his original intention of taking Wales through the 1991 World Cup and no further.

Instead he carried on, sold up in Nottingham, where he had lived for 36 years since his emigration from Ynysybwl, near Pontypridd, the day before his 12th birthday, returned to South Wales and became marketing director of Morgan Bruce, the largest firm of solicitors in Wales.

All this because he was coach of the Wales rugby team - a post which even Davies is prepared to admit hangs in the balance. He realises there are important people who joined the committee of the Welsh Rugby Union in the last year of administrative upheaval who are distinctly unimpressed with his work.

'For the enjoyment you can get, there's a price to pay. You have to cope with a high-profile position in which you will become the subject of internal and external politics. I used to go through it when I was England B coach, even with Nottingham.

'With Wales, it's clearly important that you be seen to succeed. I want to succeed and I believe the players are good enough to succeed. I believe I'm good enough to succeed.

'But I do feel myself to be under pressure. The new committee has made it known that they are distressed with the performance of the Welsh team, and if it does not improve I would expect them to do something about. As I'm the one who changes the players, in that event they would be likely to do something about me.'

However worldly-wise he has become, Davies did not bargain for this when he agreed to help Wales. He had abundant experience - coach of Nottingham 1977-87, Midlands 1985-88, England B 1986-89 - but, as he admitted after the record home defeat by Australia with which Wales ingloriously exited from the World Cup, he was ill-prepared to bear the burden of an entire nation's sporting expectations.

Now he knows better, but at the same time wishes the WRU committee had a better idea of the calamitous state of the national team, indeed of the national game, as bequeathed to him in 1991. 'Some would say the only measure of progress is if the team win more matches now than they did before. The fact is that they do, because before Bob and I took over the team didn't win any matches.'

The figures are these: in 1990 Wales lost all four Five Nations matches for the first time; in 1991 they lost three and drew one, and when Davies became coach they had just lost 63-6 to Australia in Brisbane. Under Norster and Davies, in 1992 Wales won two and lost two; in 1993 they won one and lost three.

Whether this improvement is adequate is another matter. Davies felt he had persuaded the old committee that things were moving, so the advent of the new committee voted in after the old one had resigned was an undeniable frustration.

'There is another measure of progress,' he went on. 'There is a phenomenal change in the individual players. We have gone from a desperate situation where some players, on the return from Australia in 1991, did not want to play international rugby for Wales again.

'That was our starting point. Their levels of fitness were way below their counterparts in other nations and since then there has been a big change in their desire to perform as well as in their personal fitness and lifestyle.

'When Bob and I came in we didn't even have a technical administrator at the WRU. We are still evolving an off-the-pitch administration of rugby which is in its embryo stage compared with other rugby nations.

'These are measures of progress but at the end of the day it is whoever decides which measure you use who calls the tune. Ours might not be the same as the committee which appoints us. What we as a national management are unfortunately getting is a situation where this group of people were not in place to share the abysmal starting-point and therefore have a vision of the extent of the progress.'

Quite. The committee has flexed its muscles this season by appointing two additional selectors, as if to keep tabs on Davies, and it has been made very clear that Davies's responsibilities go no further than the senior Wales team.

Tomorrow Davies will hand the responsibility to his players and, though they are radically changed from those who miserably lost to Canada in November, now if ever is the hour for them to discharge it on his behalf. 'I know that once we tip the balance the team will take off,' Davies said. So he knows - and he also has to hope against hope.

(Photograph omitted)