This way to rugby's new world

Return of Jonathan Davies to union could herald a change of fortune for the game in Wales
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The Independent Online
It has generally been forgotten during the wistful years of Jonathan Davies's exile and the frantic days leading to yesterday's return that when Davies gave up on rugby union in January 1989 - thinking never to be allowed to return - his game was actually at its lowest ebb.

At the time, regrettable though it was, Davies's departure did not quite seem the absolute calamity it was to become. Hindsight showed that Wales, and the Lions of 1989, had lost an all-time great, but we did not know that then; nor did we realise that Davies was setting a trend that would be followed by another 13 Welsh internationals down to Scott Quinnell last year.

Yet in what turned out to be his farewell international, Davies had captained Wales to one of the humiliations that were to become commonplace, a home defeat by Romania, and it is more or less certain that had he stayed in union he would have been relieved of the captaincy.

In fact, I have heard it said he might even have lost his place in the team who then went into the 1989 Five Nations' Championship. All of which only goes to show that at the time of his departure from Llanelli for Widnes, Davies was down on his luck and, in the parochial way of things Welsh, nowhere near as honoured in his own country as he became.

The six years of his absence have lent more than a golden glow because, now that he is suddenly restored to the land and game of his fathers by joining Cardiff from Warrington, he is a figure of Messianic proportions. Never mind Cardiff: at 33, Davies has two, maybe three, years in which to save Welsh rugby.

When he went, he was widely regarded as one of the greatest unfulfilled talents that Welsh rugby had ever seen. To be playing poorly in a Welsh team playing poorly was forgivable, but the fact that Davies - unlike, say, Barry John or Phil Bennett - had not been surrounded by others of similar quality meant we would never know what he might have been.

Still, we have seen what he became in rugby league, and even in his declining years he appears to be fitter and stronger, if not necessarily faster, than he was when he turned professional. Hence the widespread feeling that he should be restored to the Wales team, quite possibly as captain, with minimum delay.

Alas for Davies - and possibly for Wales as well - as far as the immediate future is concerned it is too late, the team to play Fiji on Saturday week having already been chosen. In any case, there would have been an indecent haste about such a promotion while Davies was still reacquainting himself with such unfamiliarities as line-outs, flankers and proper scrummaging.

But if popular sentiment has anything to do with it, it will happen in due course and if a fit and flourishing Davies were to return for Wales in the Five Nations in the new year, it would be the biggest lift - psychologically as much as anything - Welsh rugby has had since Davies himself first made the team as a 22-year-old in 1985.

That the most prominent advocate of Davies's re-elevation is John Williams, better known as a fabled full-back than in his most recent incarnation as a selector, adds substantially to his case, although in Wales JPR's intervention in an occasionally awkward debate has caused a ferocious row involving the club of the outside-half incumbent, Neil Jenkins.

Williams, a playing contemporary of both John and Bennett, has no truck with Jenkins's cramped type of stand-off play, believing it to be intrinsically non-Welsh and that Welsh back play will never have its credibility restored as long as such a prosaic player fills such a pivotal position.

He could, of course, never have said this of Davies, and if Davies were to become available, Williams said, he should go straight back in. The remarks were made in a Sunday newspaper, and two days later the team to whose selection Williams had contributed included Jenkins.

This was the cue for uproar, Pontypridd demanding Williams's resignation for breaching collective selectorial responsibility by impugning their player. To date, he has not complied. Instead, Davies has become available just as Williams wished, and new possibilities that were unthinkable two months ago have opened up.

On the other hand, Davies's long-range observations of his homeland will have caused him to realise that the saviours of Welsh rugby, a number of whom came and went while he was playing rugby league, are also its most vulnerable people.

That said, there is more to it than the short-term consideration of whether Davies can do anything to revive a sleeping giant. Equally important is whether the example he has set by exploiting the International Board's newly opened gangway from rugby league is followed by more than just Jonathan Griffiths, and whether his new commitment to rugby union helps persuade others to stay at home.

The Welsh Rugby Union - many times the butt of Davies's withering criticism - would like to think so.

JONATHAN DAVIES

From Union to League and back

Height: 5ft 8in.

Weight: 13st.

Played for: Neath and Llanelli.

League winners' medals: Championship, Premiership (two), Regal Trophy, Lancashire Cup, Charity Shield (two), World Cup Challenge.

1962: Born Trimsaran, near Llanelli.

1985: Collected first Wales cap.

1989: Turned professional with Widnes.

1991: Shattered Widnes' points in a season record with 342, and set Welsh records of eight goals and 24 points against Papua New Guinea.

1993: Joined Warrington on a free transfer.

1995: Led Wales to victory in the European Championship and to semi- finals of Halifax Centenary World Cup.

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