Rugby Union: Prime time calls for Davies again

Tim Glover talks to the No 8 who has burst back to help the Welsh cause
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The Independent Online
WHILE Wales were capitulating to England at Twickenham in February, Stuart Davies was sinking a few pints at a pub across the road from his home playing field, St Helen's in Swansea.

The hostelry used to be known as The Cricketers, universally so after Garfield Sobers sent one of his six sixes in an over from Malcolm Nash of Glamorgan, in the direction of the public bar. It has been renamed The Fine Leg And Firkin (they should have called it The Sobers Inn) and it was there that Davies watched the game on TV with increasing disbelief. "I don't have Sky," Davies, the thinking man's No 8, said: "And my neighbours forced me to go to the pub against my better judgement." It was a sobering afternoon.

"The players have told me how much it hurt and it's difficult to understand why it happened. Maybe the collapse was far greater when things went wrong because Wales' hopes were so high. Once hope had gone it was as if the afternoon was over."

Davies is familiar with the feeling. First capped in 1992, he was dropped the following year, came back for the World Cup in 1995 and has been subsequently ignored. Cartilage operations on both knees hasn't helped.

With his sideboard not over endowed with caps, he was beginning to regret surrendering an appearance for Wales "B" in France nine years ago. It coincided with his honeymoon in the Dominican Republic although some fanatics thought he would have been wiser to have spent his wedding night on French soil in the cause of Welsh rugby. "It was a huge conflict," Davies said. "You're never sure whether you're going to get another chance."

This season he considered himself to be so far down the pecking order for an international recall that when Wales played Scotland at Wembley last month he was decorating his house. "I started to think it wasn't going to happen," admitted Davies, at 32 a scarred veteran from the battlefield and the operating theatre. "In the last couple of seasons Wales were not in my equation. I was just trying to maintain standards and play with a bit of pride. The competition for back-row places in Swansea is intense, so holding down one has driven me on."

Against France at Wembley today he makes only his 10th appearance in the Five Nations' Championship, leading a pack that includes four of their forwards from a Swansea team on the scent of a league and cup double.

"It's all happened backwards for me. I have come from nowhere to pack leader and I'm going to make the most of it. If I didn't think we had a chance I wouldn't be looking forward to it so much. In the old days the back row alone could change the course of a game but now it's down to the front five. Since the disaster against England, Wales have gone from strength to strength and it's a pack I'm very happy to be associated with."

Few people think it's a pack that can contain a French side going for back-to-back Grand Slams. With Scott Quinnell out of the picture, Davies got the call from fine leg to open the battering after coming on in the 65th minute against Ireland in Dublin and creating a try for Neil Jenkins. He did not know beforehand that he was going to come off the bench.

Wales beat Ireland 30-21, the same Ireland that had frightened the life out of France before going down 18-16 in Paris. "Psychology played a classic role," Davies said. "France were the overwhelming favourites who thought they just had to turn up and Ireland were the out and out underdog who got stuck in. The French attitude will be better after that although they can be temperamental and our home record against them is good."

Davies is unusual, if not unique, in several respects. Since making his debut for Swansea as a schoolboy at Bishop Gore, he has been a one-club man. "I used to play in the morning and in the afternoon I would pat the giant forwards on the back."

His reward for 14 years' service is a testimonial next season. Davies has never given up his day job as an Environmental Health Officer. He has had to close a couple of restaurants in Swansea and once had the unpalatable experience of discovering a large bovine tooth in a sack of rice.

He attends Swansea training with the full-time pros on a Tuesday but otherwise has a personal fitness routine. "It may not be acceptable to everyone but it works for me. I carry fewer knocks and I'm as fresh and enthusiastic as the next man. Needless to say the rest of them take the mickey."

He is accustomed to it. When Davies runs out at Wembley today he will be careful to watch his step. He is never allowed to forget his "what happened next?" appearance for the All Whites against the All Blacks at St Helen's in 1989.

"I was third out of the tunnel and all pumped up and as I raced on to the pitch I completely lost my footing. I fell on to an old man with a walking stick who promptly helped me up. Then I dived for a low practice pass and was covered in mud. As we sang the National Anthem it looked as if I'd already played the All Blacks. I had grazes on my knees and my white strip was black." Mercifully, Davies avoided food poisoning at the after-match dinner.

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