Mefin the renaissance man

Six Nations: Wales' pocket battleship puts the days of disillusion behind him as he recovers his lust for the game
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The Independent Online

Mefin Davies is not to be confused with Mervyn Davies. Although both are former captains of Wales, one is a short, squat hooker, the other a lanky, gangly No 8, and the former has never been addressed as Mef the Swerve.

Mefin Davies is not to be confused with Mervyn Davies. Although both are former captains of Wales, one is a short, squat hooker, the other a lanky, gangly No 8, and the former has never been addressed as Mef the Swerve.

Nevertheless Davies, the abbreviated version, is held in the highest regard, and not just in Wales. When Gloucester got him as an emergency replacement on a four-month contract just before Christmas, it marked the rise, fall and rise of a 32-year-old player who refused to stay down. Yesterday his extraordinary career took another twist when Gloucester signed him on a new two-year contract, beating off the challenge of the Neath-Swansea Ospreys.

Davies took a bang on a thumb during Wales's second-half renaissance against France last week which affected his throwing into the line-out, and he was replaced by Robin McBryde. When Davies, who was forced to withdraw from the Gloucester's Powergen Cup semi-final against Bath at Kingsholm today, bumped into Mike Ruddock after the 24-18 victory at the Stade de France, the Wales coach patted him on the back and said: "Well played." Davies replied: "I was gutted not to be on the pitch at the end. I felt fine. I could have carried on."

Later, Ruddock used the exchange as an example of the team spirit in the Wales squad. "Mike was chuffed that I was gutted," Davies explained. "I wanted him to get some feedback. It had been non-stop action, we'd dug deep and we'd given everything, but I wanted him to know that I didn't have to come off. We have a democratic set-up. Responsibilities are shared and any problems are discussed."

As far as Davies is concerned, this was not always the case. Indeed, last year he felt so disillusioned with events in Wales he was on the point of packing it all in. In the regional shake-up he was a member of the Celtic Warriors, formed from the merger between Pontypridd, where he lives, and Bridgend.

"Huge sacrifices had been made to create a new identity, and the Warriors were gelling into something very good. We'd beaten Wasps away, we had qualified for the Heineken Cup and we won our last six games," Davies said.

The final victory was against Connacht, after which Davies had a stag night with his team-mates in Galway. The following day he joined the Wales squad at the Vale of Glamorgan. "The Celtic Warriors boys were told to attend a meeting and we didn't have a clue what it was about. We were told the Welsh Rugby Union had bought an interest in the club but that the Warriors would continue. We weren't sure what to believe.

"It soon became clear the Warriors would be sacrificed. The other regions chipped in to finish us off. They weren't the ones being shafted. They would get more money and the pick of the Warriors squad. It was cruel. We were led up the garden path and Ponty and Bridgend were left in limbo. It was a kick in the teeth for the valley."

Most of the players were offered contracts by the four regions - "It was like a cattle market," Davies said - although Gareth Thomas joined Toulouse. When Davies married Angharad a week later, he was out of a job. The Ospreys already had two international hookers, Barry Williams and Huw Bennett, so Davies rejoined his former club, Neath, in the Welsh Premiership, a league for semi-professionals and part-timers earning less than £10,000 a year. He resumed his day job with an electrical-engineering company, and also turned out occasionally for the Ospreys.

"Looking back on it, it was crazy. I'd come on for a half for the Ospreys for a Friday-night match in Scotland or wherever and then fly back to play for Neath on the Saturday afternoon. It was very hard. I was not really part of anything and I wasn't sure I wanted to continue. I was the Wales hooker and others were earning five times as much as me. It was all wrong."

Davies, who captained his country in 2003, scored a try, from a rolling maul no less, in Wales's heroic defeat by New Zealand in Cardiff in the autumn, but he was still in no-man's-land. A move to Paris to play for Stade Français was one way out of his predicament. "I went over there, they made me an attractive offer and everything was absolutely fine bar one thing - I would have to give up playing for Wales. It wasn't an easy decision, but in the end I just could not agree to it. I'm glad I didn't."

In December, Gloucester, who lost their hookers Olivier Azam and Chris Fortey to injury, rang Davies, and three days later he helped the West Country club beat Leicester in the sixth round of the Powergen Cup at Welford Road.

"The day before, the Ospreys offered me a contract and more money, but I had given Gloucester my word. I had mixed emotions, but it's been really good for me. The crowd at Kingsholm is fantastic. It was like making a clean start."

Davies, who will become a father in two weeks, has 27 caps, and featured in the World Cup. "Wales have been building on what happened in Australia, and we have come a long way. A few years ago we would have caved in [against France]. We got off to a poor start and kept losing the ball in contact. At half-time there was no panic stations but we knew we had to do something, so we picked up the tempo and caused them a problems.

"The thing is, we are not playing at our best and we are going to have to improve. Scotland gave France a hell of a game in Paris and they're going to be very difficult to beat in Edinburgh. Nobody in the squad is talking about the Slam. Our focus is on the next game."

Davies, who comes from Nantgaredig, a little village in Carmarthenshire, where his mother runs the post office, has never been so popular. "They are brilliant times," he said, "with huge matches every week. With a bit of self-belief and support from family and friends I have lived to tell the tale."

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