Jonathan Davies isn’t prone to headline-grabbing outbursts. He doesn’t covet the limelight. Indeed, the scrum cap he habitually wears gives him a cloak of anonymity that suits him. He shuns red carpets when, ironically, his standing in the game could routinely see his name in lights.
Unlike his fellow West Walian great in midfield, the incomparable Ray Gravell, Davies chooses to keep his innermost thoughts to himself in times of emotional duress.
One such occasion came in May 2015 when he lay prone, grimacing after taking a blow to the knee in the act of scoring a try in the match between Clermont and Montpellier. He had an inkling what was coming after suffering the same anterior cruciate ligament injury at 18.
When an ACL injury was confirmed, he was sanguine, even though he knew his road to return would be tortuous. Of course, his immediate reaction must have rhymed with ‘clucking bell’ but he resigned himself to missing the 2015 World Cup and nearly the entirety of the 2015/16 season. Japan in 2019 was a minuscule crumb of comfort to aspire to.
Four years on, still fresh-faced with the gravelly voice of a V8 engine, Davies admitted on the cusp of the tournament in the Far East that lacing up his boots for a second World Cup has been an ambition since those dark days of rehabbing in the Massif Central.
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“Having had the great experience of 2011, when I was a kid in Test terms, missing the 2015 World Cup was painful,” he told RugbyPass. “To see the boys doing so well to get out of the group and not being a part of it was really tough. I’m 31 now, so this World Cup was always the goal. It’s been at the back of my mind so to be finally here is gratifying.”
In advance of the 2017 Lions series, he evaded pointed questions over his designs on the No 13 Test jersey. But ahead of next Monday’s finals encounter with Georgia, he’s emboldened. His rhetoric has become more assertive. In New Zealand for his first World Cup, Davies – then 23 – had ushered in a new era along with George North, Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny, giving Wales a youthful sheen. He scored against Namibia, Fiji and most importantly Ireland in the quarter-finals.
This time out, it feels different. Wales are not the plucky underdogs. They are longer-in-the-tooth. Battle-hardened in thought and deed. “In 2011 we almost shocked ourselves. We knew we were in great shape but we probably didn’t expect to play that well.
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“This time round we have developed and confidence built in the last 18 months. We put together that 14-game winning streak, a Grand Slam and key wins over southern hemisphere teams. It has put us in a place that if we go into tight games, we know we can pull it out of the bag.”
For the 2019 vintage, Foxy – famously named after the Fox and Hounds pub his parents own in Bancyfelin – will no longer be the cub as younger brother James has also picked to add pace and guile to the Wales back row.
Davies gives a knowing smile. “I don’t think we’ll be on Cubby Tours this time. He thinks I’m disappointed he is coming, that it will spoil my party and that my parents will have to support both of us, but I was more nervous than him ahead of the squad announcement.
“He probably thinks I’m going soft but I couldn’t be happier for him. I’m just concerned I’m going to have to look after his kit because he is a messy sod. I just feel sorry for whoever is rooming with him.”
Brotherly love aside, Davies is self-aware enough to acknowledge he is viewed through a different prism to the fresh-faced ingenue of 2011. Aaron Wainwright and Rhys Carre would have just started contemplating shaving when he was scything through the Irish defence in Wellington.
But now that he is a Lions man of the series and double Grand Slam winner, he knows he will be expected to offer nuggets of wisdom for the rollercoaster his team members have embarked on. “If the boys want advice, I’ll tell them to accept they are here for a reason. They’re here because they are good enough.
Wales insist it is business as usual in the post-Rob Howley era https://t.co/56QE0Yn9hW
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2019
“It’s not because people are too old or have moved on, they are the best players in Wales. We’re fortunate that in Warren (Gatland) and the management, they have so much experience of this competition as players and coaches.”
As for players he expects to make a big impression, a fellow West Walian get his seal of approval. “If you were to push me for a name, I’d say Josh Adams. A lot of people know about him already from his exploits, but he has the ability to go to the next level.”
Davies himself is in fine fettle. It does not look like Father Time is wrapping his knuckles on the table waiting for him to pack it in. His lean, muscular torso during summer training drew envy-inducing glances from both sexes, only for his brother to quip that he should ‘eat some carbs’.
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But beyond the superficial observation, there is a serious point – there is plenty more rugby left in Davies and a third Lions tour, form permitting, should not be beyond him. After another nine-month lay-off after a horrific foot-injury in November 2017 against Australia, Davies feels the enforced break has possibly extended his career.
“Inadvertently, the foot injury has probably helped the body heal. The time away, the ability to rest up and get myself in shape was, in retrospect, a blessing.”
With Wales now encountering Japan’s stifling humidity, Davies says his body was pushed to the limit with the arduous training camps in Switzerland and Turkey. Framed as short-term pain for long-term gain, they had a buy-in from the entire squad.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2019
“Usually in the first game of the pre-season you’re bricking it, worrying if you are going to make it to half-time, but against England, despite getting caught cold, we felt like we were getting stronger and stronger and it showed the following week. All the hard work from the conditioning staff has put us in a good space.”
Davies’ skillset is well-documented. His highlights reel shows the signature hammer-fend on the likes of Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton and Seta Tamanivalu. Defensive reads see him wrapping Jordie Barrett and driving him backwards, and his perfect tracking line on Ngani Laumape for 70 metres before ensnaring him to avoid giving away a try in the third Lions Test was series defining. He also always has his cultured left boot to see Wales out of trouble. It begs the question, where can he improve after 76 caps?
“For me personally, I’m never going to be the finished article. What makes you a top-level player is the hard graft to constantly keep improving. It’s constantly trying to hone little parts of my game, whether it’s my defensive work or my running lines.”
As for as the one-percenters Davies will need if Wales are to progress into the knockout stages, he says improving communication is paramount. “As I have developed as a 13, I have concentrated on being an extra set of eyes for the 10, feeding information back in-game. I have more time than him to scan so I need to help them dictate and pull strings because he is the most important player on the pitch.”
Wales have long traded on the collective and made themselves an obdurate team to breakdown. They aren’t prone to the final-quarter capitulations that dogged their pre-Gatland years. Davies says they function on a simple principle.
“Work ethic has been a mantra of this management and squad. You won’t be here for a long time if you don’t have that. You know when you come into camp you’re going to work hard and you’re going to be flogged, but the reward hopefully comes in tournaments like this. There’s a saying, ‘if it was easy, everyone would be doing it’, and we stick by that.”
It’s the most bullish Davies has ever sounded. As a player, he doesn’t succumb to hyperbole, so you have to surmise Wales have deep-seated belief which bodes well. “Across the board, the competition for places has put us in a position to go far. We can go into this World Cup and win it.”
If Davies’ dreams transpire, a nation of three million will be chiming ‘clucking bell’, or words to that effect, in unison. Stranger things have happened.
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