“We’re all winners in the hindsight Olympics”. It’s a phrase regularly bandied about for errors in judgement but for Sam Davies, any sense of regret about taking a leap of faith and leaving his home region for the Dragons have been largely justified.
A year ago, Davies faced a career-defining decision after seeing the Ospreys unveil star fly-half Gareth Anscombe in a never-to-be-forgotten signing-on video. Anscombe was Wales’ first-choice fly-half and had made his name in the blue and black of Cardiff, whereas Davies’ blood genuinely was black.
He was a Swansea boy to his bootlaces, who had had trials with football’s Swansea City as a teenager and represented the West Walian region on 151 occasions, becoming their second-highest points scorer ever with 836, just two ahead of James Hook.
The marquee signing of Anscombe was a body blow to Davies who, at 25, had been kicking his heels behind Dan Biggar for a number of years. When the voluble Welsh pivot upped sticks to Northampton, the assumption was that Davies would take over the No10 role he had longed for. It wasn’t to be.
After much soul-searching, he decided that throwing his scrum-cap in with the Dragons was the best course of action as he would be clear first-choice out-half 50-odd miles east of the Liberty.
Just months later, before the domestic season had even started, Anscombe incurred a season-ending injury, leaving the Ospreys short at fly-half and no doubt privately rueing the decision to let Davies go. With just the inexperienced Luke Price and Super Rugby’s Marty McKenzie failing to settle, the region went on to endure the worst season of their 17-year history, losing a head coach in a rudderless campaign.
Correspondingly, the Dragons had probably had their most promising season in some time, with nine wins in 19 games. Davies was an ever-present. If he was so inclined, he could afford a moment’s schadenfreude at what he left behind, but that’s not in his make-up.
“I thought it was going to be a very tough decision but when I look back now, with everything that went on, it’s funny how rugby works out,” he told RugbyPass.
“If you look at the Ospreys, on paper they have a good squad but with all the internationals away and injuries, results slipped away from them. I wouldn’t wish the season they had on anybody at the Liberty, but perhaps it’s made my move look more sensible.”
Despite his move, he bears no grudges to his old employer. “Listen, I’d been competing with Dan for four of five years before that and I didn’t feel I needed to prove myself to anyone. In all honesty, I didn’t feel like they needed to sign an outside-half at the Ospreys but ultimately it wasn’t my decision. When that news came through, there’s no doubt it pushed me towards the Dragons.”
Initially, despite offers from further afield, Davies had made his decision based on wanting to stay in Wales because he coveted pulling on the three feathers again. Within months, after some composed early performances for the Dragons, he did just that, playing for half-an-hour against the Barbarians.
“I had a call from (Wayne) Pivac at the start of the season and that gave me a bit of confidence. The Baa-Baas was my first game back on the international scene after over two years out so I was nervous, I’m not going to lie.”
When Davies reflects on his modest eight Welsh caps he maintains he hasn’t looked out of place, an imposter in the fabled No10 shirt. “We’ve won six out of eight Tests and I haven’t felt out of my depth. I’ve felt comfortable.”
While Davies initially didn’t get picked for the 2020 Six Nations, he was called up and at one stage it looked like he was in line for some game time against England before Biggar’s Lazarus-style recovery. “When Dan was struggling with his knee, I was on stand-by but I have been sitting on the bench for him quite a few times now, so I wasn’t surprised he started. He’s one tough cookie.”
As for the current pecking order with Wales, when questioned over whether he sees himself as number five in the pecking order behind Biggar, Anscombe, Rhys Patchell and Jarrod Evans, Davies rightly backs himself. “I wouldn’t put myself in any order. People can get injured and things can change very quickly. That’s the challenge and why I stayed in Wales.”
One other factor that has given Davies some hope is the fact the Warren Gatland era has come to an end, something that has given overlooked players hopes of rekindling Test ambitions. “It’s a clean slate with Warren leaving. I never really played under him because Rob Howley was in charge in 2017 before the Lions and Robin McBryde was in charge on the summer tour.”
A major part in his decision-making came from one-to-one conversations with Dean Ryan, who saw the Dragons transfer over the line. “As a player, you just want someone who is going to invest in you and allow you to be your own man and contribute in the way you do best. That’s what he has done in abundance for me. He has really helped my game. Hopefully, his arrival has given a few of the boys a bit of hope.”
Davies made the move in the full knowledge that the Dragons had endured some fallow years. The region had changed ownership and coaches exited on a regular basis, with Lyn Jones, Kingsley Jones and Bernard Jackman all coming and going. But Ryan has given them the confidence needed to stop navel-gazing and be proud of the region they represent.
“Dean is a big man and he has a presence when he comes into the room. He won’t be bullied. The Dragons needed a strong personality, someone to puff out our chests.” That said, Davies makes it clear that Ryan has tempered expectations, not fanned them.
“It’s not an overnight, flipping-the-switch type situation here. It’s a long-term process. He’s looking at the academy boys and bringing them into training because he knows we’re challenged financially. We will have to be cute in the transfer market because we can’t compete with the Scarlets in terms of the salary cap, so he knows he has to build a real team ethos.”
The 26-year-old says after looking from the outside, it’s quite different inside the camp under Ryan. “Dean has had huge amounts of experience in the Premiership with Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester and it shows. In recent weeks we have been linked with Joe Tomane, Jonah Holmes and Nick Tompkins, which speaks for itself. Would that have happened last year? I’m not sure.”
Whereas some stellar names may yet be added to the Dragons roster, some players Davies was already familiar with were already filling their lockers, including fellow age-grade contemporaries Jack Dixon and Jordan Williams, but it was Rhodri Williams who had the biggest influence on his move.
“I played first with Rhodri at U16 level and we went on to play at U18 and U20 level for Wales where we lost in the final to England. That was a big factor in me going there. He’d played really well for Bristol so, knowing the player I am, I knew we could complement each other. Rhodri used to take a lot on himself but I’d like to think I’ve taken some pressure off him to free him up a bit to score tries.”
Indeed, Davies is no ingénue, having caught the eye from a young age. A winner of the Junior World player of the year in 2013, beating Ardie Savea, Cheslin Kolbe and future England stars Jack Nowell and Henry Slade, by the 2016/17 season the then 23-year-old was gaining traction as the people’s favourite to take the Wales No10 shirt from Biggar.
A series of incidents saw his star wane, however. “I picked up a groin issue before the Wales summer tour of 2017. In hindsight, I should have sorted that out but I was trying to be brave. I knew I’d be starting so I didn’t want to pull out. We got the two wins in horrendous conditions but that is when it really flared up and I came back struggling.
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Hour exercise after dropping essentials off was the backdoor crossbar challenge along with kicking (this pitch was on my route home after shops btw) .. 22m then 32m then 40m (well you be the judge of that) first ones still bouncing I think ?? stay safe everyone .. off to enjoy a beer in the garden now ? @dragonsrugby @bbcscrumv #skills @castore_sportswear
“I remember being asked to play in a start-of-season game even though I’d done no running, but I was kidding myself. I remember us starting up at Glasgow where I couldn’t function properly and after a few games of trying to force it, my confidence started taking a bit of a kicking. I went into a spiral.”
After reaching a nadir, it was decided that Davies was to see a groin specialist in Dublin. Enda King had treated Dan Carter and that was enough of a recommendation for the fly-half to get himself fixed. “I stayed there for a week because Enda knows his groins. I told him I could run, but I couldn’t get to my top pace and kicking had become an issue.
“Thankfully he was able to get to the bottom of it. It was tough mentally but I’ve learnt it’s how you come out on the other side. Even in my final season I thought I played well at the Ospreys, picking up a few man of the match awards. I certainly didn’t feel the fans were desperate to get rid of me.”
With 19 games chalked off with the Dragons including a never-to-be-forgotten last-gasp drop goal against the Scarlets, Davies said the time in lockdown has given him time to reflect and refocus. “I guess I’ve matured. I’m no longer the 23-year-old who likes just going out for a drink with the boys.”
On the field, too, Davies feels a new-found maturity has led to an evolution in his game. “I can rein it in nowadays. If you get a coach who allows you to express yourself and allows you to flourish under his framework, that’s ideal but you have to know where the line is and that’s where I’ve come on. My decision-making has improved.”
Known for prodigious footballing skills, Davies has been seen on social media trying a variety of trick shots, including chipping a rugby ball through an open house window. It begs the question, is he the northern hemisphere’s rival to Quade Cooper? “I’m not sure about that,” he laughed.
“But we’re eight weeks in (to lockdown) and it’s important to keep connected to the fans on social media. Some of the rugby boys take the mick but as players we have a responsibility to keep the game in the public eye because if we go cold the fans could fade away and get used to a life without rugby. That would be a nightmare for everyone.”
Whatever transpires in the coming months, Davies will keep working on his game. One of the areas he has come under scrutiny is his defence but he says he is not shying away from the physical stuff and is relishing his role as the Dragons’ matador-in-chief.
— Sam Davies (@samdavey1993) April 6, 2020
“As you get older, you fill out a little bit and I put some more emphasis on gym work last summer. Inevitably as an outside-half, you’re going to get targeted by every team you play, so you have to come to terms with that otherwise it will eat you up.
“The upside of getting clattered is seeing the player you have put through a hole going under the sticks. That’s the beauty of the game. Sometimes, I’ll dust myself off, look the opposition player in the eye and smile.”
Spoken with the swagger of a true fly-half, it’s clear Davies has relocated his mojo and is back to his old self, ready to breathe fire into the burgeoning Dragons renaissance.
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