Union man in a league of his own

Dave Hadfield applauds the efforts of a player who conquered rugby's tougher code
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IT WOULD be unhappy, unfair and unnecessary for the manner of Jonathan Davies's departure from rugby league to sour the memory of the past six and a half years. By any measure, league has had better value out of him than it has from almost any other union convert. Among Welsh stand-offs, only Willie Davies, Lewis Jones and David Watkins over the past half-century bear comparison.

Trevor Foster, who joined Bradford Northern from Newport in 1938 and has seen more of his compatriots come and go than anyone, has no doubts about where Davies stands in the pantheon. "One of the top players of all time," is his assessment. "Like many Welsh players, he has been improved by rugby league, with its greater attacking opportunities and more ball- handling."

Foster is a classic example of a Welshman who came north and never returned; Davies never left South Wales spiritually, so it should be no great surprise that he is returning there, or that he is going back to his union roots.

Davies was a massive success in league because, unlike some players who are now keen to follow his path back into union, he recognised himself as a novice in a radically different game. He was hungry for insight and information - and he was willing to build himself up physically. After one of his first games for Widnes I recall him recovering in the changing- rooms and wistfully remarking: "It's hard this, isn't it?"

He applied himself admirably to coming to terms with the heightened physical battle of the other code but over the past year or so it has become too hard. He has felt every knock and his performances have suffered. His spell this summer with the North Queensland Crushers was more about seizing the chance of a good pay-day than fulfilling ambitions as a player.

As a top-line league player, he had months rather than years left, and nobody would have wanted to witness the decline of so great a player as Jonathan Davies. Now he has begun to lose the edge it makes sense for him to return to union.

For Warrington, receiving a pounds 90,000 fee for a player they signed on a free transfer when Widnes found themselves in financial trouble, is good business. By a rough calculation, they have had him for two years for very little. And Cardiff will hardly suffer from having acquired Davies's services.

"His ability is supreme, but he has also always had that fervour to do well," Foster said. "He has given value - and you can't ask for more. He will be able to sit at the Arms Park and direct operations."

Of course, it sticks slightly in the league craw to hear union crowing about its returned prodigal. Any self-satisfaction in Wales, however, conveniently ignores what Davies's return actually says about the relative toughness of the two codes.

Rugby league should wish him well in his new and less onerous career. The code has been arguing for the best part of a century that players should be able to move between the methods of playing the game as they can between any other two sports. Now that Davies is making the return journey, league should be a good deal more gracious than union has been when the boot has been on the other foot.

While he was at the sharp end he was a genuine rugby league player. He has earned a long and comfortable rest.