Tuesday 20 March 2018

Jonathan Davies: I'm ready for battle with icon BOD for Lions shirt

Chris Hewett

There are precious few certainties surrounding this summer's British and Irish Lions Test series in Australia.

The beer will be stratospherically expensive, thanks to the mining boom that has launched the economy of the "lucky country" into orbit; there is bound to be a disciplinary issue involving someone in the stellar Wallaby back division, if Kurtley Beale's latest excesses are anything to go by… and that's about it. Except for Brian O'Driscoll, of course. It is generally assumed that if the great Irish centre is fit, he will wear the No 13 shirt in all the games that matter.

Which makes Jonathan Davies – the current player with a tackle like the clap of doom, to quote the late lamented Bill McLaren, rather than the former player who now enlightens us from the commentary booth – a very interesting character indeed. Davies is plenty good enough to play the outside centre role in the big matches: a year ago, he was named in a variety of "World XVs" following an exceptional Six Nations Championship, and he was back to something like his best form when Wales splattered England all over Cardiff a fortnight ago. His tussle with the almighty BOD could be one of the features of the tour.

"When I was growing up, I thought O'Driscoll was phenomenal," says the 24-year-old Scarlet of the 34-year-old Leinsterman. "He's still phenomenal now, but in a different way. It's the sign of a player of the highest class that he can adjust his game in really smart ways as he gets older. I found that out when we played Ireland in February. He had the better of me that day, by far.

"I played against him at the last World Cup" – the two countries met at the quarter-final stage, with Wales prevailing – "and I was still a little in awe of him, even then. After the game, I thought it would be nice to have his shirt as a souvenir. At the same time, Rhys Priestland [the outside-half who plays alongside Davies at both regional and international levels] said he wanted Ronan O'Gara's jersey. Brian was doing media, so I stood there waiting for him like a supporter, which, in a way, I was. When the moment came, he said 'no problem' and we swapped. I was pretty chuffed.

"Rhys wasn't so lucky. O'Gara told him that as he was about to retire, he'd like to hang on to his shirt. A few weeks later, while we were both standing behind the sticks in Dublin waiting for a penalty shot, Rhys saw O'Gara warming up on the touchline. He looked at me and said, out of the side of his mouth: 'Hey, that bloke told me he was packing it in'."

A fortnight on from what Davies describes as "one of the greatest moments ever" – the embers of the Welsh fire he and his colleagues lit that day are still aglow, obviously – he returns to the Millennium Stadium this afternoon to play his part in a Welsh regional double-header labelled, just a little grandiloquently, as "Judgement Day".The Llanelli-based Scarlets play the Newport-based Dragons in the first east-west contest, with the Cardiff-based Blues and Swansea-based Ospreys completing the entertainment.

"After the England game, the Scarlets gave me a week off," says the midfielder, who was born in Solihull but lived in Bancyfelin, a small village a few miles west of Carmarthen, from a very young age. "It was good of them. I needed a few days to kick back and relax a little. I caught up with a few mates and spent some time with my family, who live in Laugharne." As every GCSE student knows, Laugharne is Dylan Thomas territory. "Brown's Hotel, where he used to drink, is still there, although it's changed a lot," Davies continues. "Sadly, Dylan's skills never rubbed off on me." When he is reminded that the above-average professional rugby player earns a good deal more than the above-average poet, he smiles. "Fair point," he says.

With the Lions looming so large – the tour party will be named at the end of April, with departure scheduled for mid-May – Davies does not pretend, as so many players insist on doing, that he has not weighed up his chances. "Of course it crosses your mind," he admits. "Whenever you speak to someone who has experienced a Lions trip, he tells you it's the best time of his career. It would be a great honour, the ultimate honour, to be picked for this one. But what is there for me to do, apart from shape up in a Scarlets shirt all the way through the league run-in? That's the best way I can warrant a place on the tour and it's what I intend to do.

"Anyway, the first priority is putting Scarlets in a position to win something by qualifying for the Pro12 play-offs. I love this club. I love the whole history and tradition of Llanelli rugby. Back in the day, people living outside Wales saw Llanelli as the team, because they played with such style and attacking intent. I think that spirit is still alive: we'd rather go out there and enjoy ourselves than smash it up the guts all afternoon, and while it doesn't always go to plan – I suppose we'd be more consistent if we didn't try to play rugby at the wrong times – there's nothing better than expressing yourself on the pitch with a bunch of friends, which is what we are."

Which brings us neatly to the events of 16 March and the band of brothers who successfully defended their Six Nations title by beating the Grand Slam-chasing English with so much to spare. Did the occasion feel special right from the start, or did the unusual intensity of it all dawn on him gradually as the game unfolded?

"It felt different straight away," Davies replies. "When the English anthem struck up, it shook me a little. I remember thinking: 'God, there's a lot of 'em in here today. We can't afford to be outsung.' And of course we weren't outsung. When the moment came for Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau [Land of My Fathers, as it is known on the wrong side of the Severn], there was something electrifying about it. We'd been confident all week that our defence would hold up, so it was a matter of using the emotion to get ourselves into the game early and build a performance.

"Before kick-off, I felt we were in a good place as a team. I felt good about my own game too. I'd had a couple of rough moments in that opening match against Ireland, but Rob Howley [the interim head coach] had collared me the following Monday morning and said: 'Listen, don't worry about things. We know what you can do for us, so just back yourself.' That reassurance meant a lot to me. I could have spent all week questioning myself; instead, I found myself playing with renewed self-belief. When we're all thinking that way, we're pretty difficult to beat."

So who were the principal movers and shakers in the dressing room? Leigh Halfpenny, the near-faultless full-back, has been heard talking of Sam Warburton's rousing half-time address and as a result, many see the flanker as the hot favourite to captain the Lions in Australia. But Davies points out that Gethin Jenkins, the prop who took on the leadership burden against England largely because Warburton felt it might be too much of a distraction, made a valuable contribution of his own.

"A lot has been written about the things Sam said during the game, and he did make a big speech," the centre acknowledges. "But Gethin said all the right things too, in his own quiet way. I don't want to be disparaging about props, but he is unusually intelligent for one of his breed. He'll come up to you during a game and say: 'Right, we need to spend more time playing down there, so let's kick a little bit more.' At first you think: 'Hang on, you're a prop.' And then you think: 'Actually, you're right.' He knows his stuff. To have won four Six Nations titles and been part of three Grand Slams… well, that's quite something, isn't it? There aren't many around who can match that.

"And in the same way, there aren't many teams who can match our achievement in recent seasons. People still talk of the great Welsh sides of the 1970s, and rightly so, but I think we've done something special ourselves. It might not sink in with the public for 15 or 20 years, but this team's success is worth celebrating long into the future."


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