Home fires warm Davies in his Leeds basement

The prodigal son: Championship triumph is a timely boost for Welsh coach battling in England
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The Independent Online

As a former Wales No 8, Phil Davies watched his country's ascent to the pinnacle of European rugby with an increasing degree of pride. After Wales had beaten Ireland at the Millennium Stadium to claim their first Grand Slam in 27 years Davies sent a text congratulating Mike Ruddock, although he realised it would be joining a very long queue.

"I've known Mike for donkey's years and I was just absolutely delighted for him and the players," Davies said. "They've been through some incredibly tough times and they've shown wonderful character to come out on top. Take Martyn Williams as an example. But for an injury to Colin Charvis he might not have been in the team, but he ended up being named the player of the championship."

Davies spent 15 years at Llanelli before joining Leeds in the mid-Nineties as their player-coach. After a series of rapid promotions, Leeds were in the Zurich Premiership with Davies as the director of rugby. While Ruddock was coaching in Ireland with Leinster, Davies worked closely in England with another Welsh exile, Kevin Bowring.

When Bowring left the Welsh Rugby Union he eventually ended up as the head of England's élite player development. Davies, meanwhile, has been working hard on a two-year course for the RFU's level five coaching diploma, the highest attainable. He graduates in November.

After Steve Hansen returned to New Zealand, leaving the Wales post vacant, Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli was the red-hot favourite to succeed him. However, the WRU invited Ruddock, who last year was working with Newport-Gwent Dragons, to apply for the job, and they liked what they heard.

"It's ironic the way it's all worked out," Davies said. "I used to play against Mike when he was at Swansea and he was a top wing-forward. I couldn't be happier for him. Two things have struck me about Wales's success. Mike has brought a lot of Welshness back into the team, and that is so important. If you're not born and bred in a country it's difficult to get a real feel of the heritage and history. Look at the All Blacks. Nobody would have a passion for New Zealand rugby like a Kiwi. The other thing is that Mike and his squad didn't just win the Grand Slam, they won it in such style. I hadn't seen anything like it, and I'm not sure anybody else in the world had either."

Last year Davies declined to enter the ring for the Wales post. "Hopefully one day I'll be in a position to apply, but it was a bit too soon. I'm only 41 and I'm still learning. Maybe one day."

At the moment, Davies has enough to contend with. If Leeds are going to hell in a handcart, or at least the rugby equivalent, their coach is going with them. Davies has been linked to several clubs, including Harlequins and Llanelli, but says he is staying in Yorkshire.

Given Leeds's predicament in the Premiership - rock bottom following a poor run and today they play the runaway leaders, Leicester - it might be seen as a good time for a fresh challenge.

"I'm staying," Davies said. "Considering our position in the league, it's flattering to think that other clubs would be interested in me. I've been here nine years and I'm not about to walk away from a job that's half-done."

In a deadly game of pass the parcel Leeds look lumbered for the excess postage, though as far as promotion and relegation are concerned the wannabes in National League One say they will only believe it when they see it. At this time of year, speculation over one-up, one-down surfaces with the daffodils.

"I'm not a very good politician," Davies said. "As far as we know, the club that finishes bottom will go down. Those are the rules, and we knew them at the beginning of the season. What we've got to concentrate on is making sure we're not in 12th place on 30 April. I'm optimistic."

Leeds have reasons to be cheerful, but they are not connected to their immediate future in the Premiership. After today's visit of Leicester they are away to Gloucester, home to Harlequins and finish their programme with a visit to Bath. In the middle of all that they meet Bath in the final of the Powergen Cup.

That should be a red-letter day for the club - it's the first time they have got beyond the semi-finals of the national knock-out competition - but how are they going to enjoy it when they are standing next to a trap door? "We're in a strange position," Davies admitted, "But with a bit of luck and a following wind we'll get out of it. We've been working very hard to build the club and we've still got a lot to do. The cup will be a great occasion, and it would be nice to put something on the table, but overall I'm disappointed at the position we're in."

In a sport that regularly amazes,Leeds produced their own bombshell in January. Justin Marshall, the third most capped All Black of all time, would be joining Leeds on a two-year contract. Andy Farrell, who is 29, will be fast-tracked into England's élite group; by the time Marshall, who is 31, arrives in England, his Test career will be over.

Apart from the money, why would Marshall make the move? "Leeds present new challenges," he said. "It's exciting to have the opportunity to set new goals and compete in a different competition. I'm looking forward to travelling with my family. It's a chance to step out of the comfort zone and enjoy new experiences."

Yet the scrum-half's intention is to make the All Blacks' series against the Lions in the summer his international swansong. In the meantime, he will be watching the results in the Premiership. If Leeds are relegated, Marshall could go from playing for the All Blacks against the British and Irish Lions to playing for the Tykes against the Pertemps Bees.

"Come what may, Justin has agreed to join Leeds, and he arrives in August," Davies said. "He's coming to Leeds as a player, not as a coach."

Davies is contracted to stay until 2007. "Leeds has been a big part of my life. We've only been at the top level for four years. Our academy is in place and the potential is massive." Apart from when they finished fifth in 2003, Leeds have found the Premiership hostile. The last thing the city needs is a rugby version of what happened to Leeds United.

"National League One is a very tough place to get out of," Davies said. "I know what the pitfalls are. Let's see what happens at the end of April."