The pride of the Principality

Ken Jones meets Jonathan Davies, who is hoping to say farewell to league with victory at Wembley, not just Old Trafford; RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD CUP: Wales are preparing to capitalise on their team spirit to deny the home side a place in the final
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The Independent Online
Things have been moving at such a pace in rugby that the deep prejudice held for many years in South Wales against the 13-a-side code has remarkably given way to a groundswell of enthusiasm for the team Jonathan Davies leads out against England at Old Trafford today in an attempt to reach the Rugby League World Cup final.

Nobody is more thrilled by the knowledge that some 10,000 Welsh supporters will be making the journey to Manchester than Davies, whose defection to Widnes almost seven years ago was such a blow to rugby union in the Principality, raising another storm of rage against plunderers from the north, that he could no longer be sure of a welcome in his homeland.

The irony in this for Davies personally is that he is seeking release from a contract with Warrington that thwarts temporarily the idea of a return to rugby union in Wales made possible by the advent of professionalism.

"It's the other side of the coin," Davies said this week, "something rugby league clubs never had to think about when they took players from union. Once you made the move that was it. Now we have another option.

"There isn't enough money in Welsh rugby union to recapture the best paid of our young players, like Scott Gibbs and Scott Quinell," Davies continued, "but I'm coming up to 33 and it's time to go home and get the rest of my life sorted out."

Suggestions that Davies will join Cardiff may depend on the Welsh club's willingness to compensate Warrington for the loss of his services.

"I have lawyers looking at my contract," Davies said, "but the money wouldn't be an issue personally if Warrington were willing to let me go. Unfortunately, the chairman, Peter Higham, won't hear of it, which is a bit much considering that I didn't cost the club a penny."

Whatever the outcome of those negotiations, it can be concluded that Davies's last performance in rugby league will be given either at Old Trafford this afternoon or, as he hopes, at Wembley next Saturday.

Hope springs from confidence implanted in the Welsh team by a stirring victory over Western Samoa at the Vetch Field, Swansea, last Sunday that was notable for some of the fiercest exchanges ever seen on a rugby field in Wales.

"It was as close to being in a real war as any of us are ever likely to get," Davies said. "As well as being naturally talented, the Samoans are incredibly strong and combative and I've never known such tackling. Neither side gave an inch and you could sense awe in the crowd, who were absolutely marvellous. To realise that plenty of those who packed into the Vetch grew up despising rugby league made it special."

A great achievement became even more satisfying for Davies when a number of great figures from the history of Welsh rugby union expressed the view that its present representatives would not have lasted longer then 15 minutes against the legitimately brutal assaults that the men from the South Pacific threw at the home line.

Clem Thomas, who ranks as one of the most effective wing forwards ever to turn out for Wales and the Lions, and whose opinions are greatly respected internationally, went further. In his weekly column for the South Wales Evening Post, and allowing for the technical importance of line-out play and scrummaging, he ventured the probability that league players would fill every position in a Welsh team chosen from both codes, a view shared by another Welsh hero, Cliff Morgan.

Above all else, what Thomas experienced last week in the company of more than 17,000 spectators was exhilaration; the very best of rugby, hard enough to satisfy primal instincts while engaging the glories of sporting imagination.

When citing examples of individual heroics, Thomas referred to Davies as: "Well, just Jonathan." Not quite. Apart from being at least a stone heavier than when reckoned to be the most inventive outside-half at work in the 15-a-side game, he is a more complete footballer.

"When Jonathan went north there wasn't anything for him to learn about handling skills, but he would not have made it in league without improving his fitness and becoming a lot stronger," Mike Nicholas, the Wales manager, said.

"He's as tough as old boots and I'm always kidding him about still having the nose he came north with. That it hasn't been moved around a bit is a tribute to the balance and nimbleness that helped to make him such a great player in both codes. When you think of men such as Gus Risman, Jim Sullivan, Dai Watkins and Billy Boston it is difficult to make a case for Jonathan as the most successful convert, but he's right up there with best of them."

While Davies remains devoutly Welsh, he is delighted to be playing alongside men who inherited their qualification, most obviously the Wigan front row of Kelvin Skerrett, Neil Cowie and Martin Hall. "Once those guys pull on a red jersey, they are Welshmen to the bone," Davies said, "and the spirit in our squad is greater than any I have known in union or league. Widnes had tremendous togetherness and I felt something similar when I last turned out for Wales in the Five Nations, but the feeling we have for each other on the field beats everything."

Nothing pleases Davies more than the national response to last week's great victory. "People have been stopping us in the street, wishing us luck and shaking our hands, which is amazing when you think of the stick rugby league has taken in Wales. What we have to do now is give the people something to be proud of. What with disappointments in union and soccer, things haven't been going well for Welsh sport, so there is an awful lot to play for."

During a team meeting this week, Davies stressed that joy can come only from victory. "It would have been disappointing to have ended my career last week at Swansea and I don't want to find myself walking away from the game at Old Trafford."

The finale Davies has in mind takes place at Wembley.

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