The Saturday Interview: Phil Davies

After 10 years with Leeds, a second marriage with Llanelli is paying off for both coach and club, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Geographically, culturally, economically, linguistically, you name it... Llanelli is one hell of a way from Leeds. When it comes to sport, they cannot be said to inhabit the same universe. Not even parallel ones. Llanelli has a union heritage immeasurably richer than West Yorkshire, where one of the Welsh club's favourite sons, Phil Davies, spent a decade doing his damnedest to create a little union history in the heart of league land. His best efforts ended in cruel failure. "Ten years to build it up, one year to bugger it up," he said with a sigh.

Davies scaled his share of peaks at Headingley - promotion to the Premiership, a Powergen Cup, Heineken Cup qualification - but the descent was longer and more painful than the one down the Matterhorn. Leeds were relegated last season, a fate to which the coach had privately resigned himself by Christmas, and there is no Harlequins-like guarantee that they will make an immediate return.

"It's not quite a case of back to square one - they're better than that, despite all that's happened," he insisted this week. "But it will be very interesting to see how they respond to what is bound to be a very difficult challenge."

It is no great surprise to learn that Davies still cares about Leeds. The former Wales No 8 and captain is the proud owner of a soul and a conscience - as well as being among the best qualified coaches in British rugby, having just broken new ground by passing the Rugby Football Union's "level five" examination, he can also be counted among the most loyal - and he took the dire events of the spring very personally indeed. But having decided to resign, a move that left him in a state of "trepidation and panic", nothing could have been more of a relief than an offer of gainful employment at Stradey Park, where he played all his club rugby, give or take a year with South Wales Police.

"I had to play for them because... well, because I was in the police force at the time," he explained, in tones that suggests he would rather have spent a year directing traffic than leave Llanelli.

He had been linked with a move to Stradey every time the long-time incumbent, Gareth Jenkins, was tipped for the Wales job, which seemed on occasion to be a weekly event.

"Gareth was here for 24 years," said Davies, who played innumerable first-team games under his stewardship, "and largely because of him, Llanelli's place deep in the fabric of Welsh and British rugby is secure. He produced open-minded players, people with enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn - people who were prepared to play the Llanelli way, which is so distinctive. When Gareth finally applied for the Wales job, which was only right and proper because he deserved his chance, I hoped it might mean an opportunity for me."

And so it came to pass. Jenkins moved due east to the Welsh Rugby Union offices in Cardiff while Davies headed south-west to Stradey. His family, who had settled in Yorkshire, made the trip with him, with the exception of his eldest daughter. "She said: 'I'm not leaving and that's that.'" Davies smiled, and added: "She's 20, so it was just about OK."

This second marriage between Davies and Llanelli could be heavenly indeed. Certainly, he has his side playing some celestial stuff. Tomorrow, Harlequins visit Stradey in the EDF Energy Cup and might well catch a pasting given their current frailties, allied to the fact that the competition means significantly more in Wales than in England.

Yet even if the Scarlets beat Quins from one end of the principality to the other, Davies will not hear a word against the game on what is once again the "wrong" side of the Severn Bridge. He was not exactly Anglicised during his time in the Premiership, but he became an Anglophile.

"I always held Welsh rugby and its traditions in the deepest respect," he said. "That feeling is now there for English rugby, too. Coaching in the Premiership was a fantastic experience for me; it gave me a grounding above and beyond anything I could have gained anywhere else. There could have been no greater education, and I appreciate it.

"No one was more gutted than me, more disappointed and disillusioned with life, when Leeds were relegated, but once the initial emotion died away, I felt a huge pride and satisfaction in what I'd achieved in the English game. I felt I'd left a legacy at the club, and at the same time, I recognised what it had given me. If some people saw my resignation as a cold-eyed business move, they were wrong. It was more complex than that, big time."

Of course, Davies has left some of the more perilous complexities of rugby life behind him by moving to Wales. For one thing, the regional structure, underpinned as it is by the Magners League and the EDF Energy Cup, means relegation is off the radar. No more dogfights under lights on a Friday evening; no more anxious text messages in search of score updates from fellow strugglers; no more paranoia. Pure bloody luxury, as the Pythons famously said in their best Yorkshire accents.

"It's different," Davies said. "I wouldn't necessarily say it's easier, because hand on heart, I stayed true to my rugby principles at Leeds - bringing on the young players, putting some faith in them, backing them to go out there and express themselves - just as I will here at Llanelli. That approach brings its own pressure. But the absence of relegation is a big shift in terms of security. I know that in three years, barring some complete catastrophe, this club and region will have moved several steps forward. At Leeds, I had that feeling 80 per cent of the time. The other 20 per cent was spent worrying about what might happen if we went down."

But surely, Welsh rugby lost something of itself by embracing regionalisation. There is no professional rugby in the valleys these days; nothing north of the M4, in fact. Pontypridd, Bridgend, Ebbw Vale - where in God's name did they go? Great swathes of the rugby community have been disenfranchised, have they not?

"You can look at it any number of ways," he replied, "but I see it like this. The regional thing effectively enabled the Welsh game to survive with a professional programme in place, and if you look around the country now, the semi-pro game is starting to gather momentum. There is a phenomenal amount of work going on in so many areas, and if the change of structure didn't give everyone what they wanted and felt they deserved, the logistics of creating an elite game in a country this size probably made it inevitable that some would miss out."

There is a certain irony that Davies should be performing his prodigal son act at this precise juncture, for his first season in charge of the Scarlets will be their last at Stradey, assuming the management negotiate the remaining obstacles in the planning process and go ahead with their move to a new stadium on the edge of town. A bit of a heartbreaker, or a sign of the times?

"Both. Stradey is synonymous with Llanelli rugby and with success. Many a great game has been played here, many a great player has walked through those gates out there. This is a place of legend, and the very name runs deep for all of us who hold the club dear.

"But we are entering the second decade of professionalism and we have to look at life from a commercial point of view as well as a rugby one. We need 21st-century facilities. However difficult that is for some people to understand and accept, it's an absolute necessity if we are to ensure the Scarlets are here for another 100 years.

"If we want to continue to excel, we need to embrace the new. My view of Stradey will never change, but we can't afford to stand still."

Having dragged Leeds through the divisions, Davies knows what it is to move with the times. He intends to keep moving. The Welsh national job is high on his list of ambitions, and he would relish a return to the Premiership while the fires still burn. But for the foreseeable future, it is Llanelli all the way.

"We have three buzz words this season: intensity, efficiency, expression. They sum up the way I want us to play our rugby." Funnily enough, they also sum up the coach.

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