Jonathan Davies: the Welsh wizard who lit up the rugby league world

Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies is a name which fans of both codes of rugby treat with utmost respect. The former Widnes, Warrington, Canterbury, North Queensland, Wales and Great Britain utility back ‘went North’ from Welsh rugby union in 1989, and was taken to the hearts of many rugby league people.

Davies was a livewire player, an exciting Welsh wizard of a back who could move through a gap at pace and finish moves, as well as find space for other players, and kick superbly.

‘Jiffy’ began his career in Welsh rugby union, a testing ground for many of our game’s greatest players, and it was perhaps typical frustrations with the state of the 15-man code in his homeland which prompted his move.

Davies had captained Wales to a disastrous tour of New Zealand in 1988, where the team were hammered out of sight by the All Blacks.

He himself had a fine tour, and returned full of ideas about how the state of Welsh rugby union could be improved. He was ignored by the powers-that-be, and joined Widnes for £230,000 in 1988.

The man who brought Davies into rugby league was former Widnes coach Doug Laughton, a man whose astuteness Davies rates highly, especially when it came to bedding Davies into his new code at a new club.

“He was a good man-manager, who nurtured me,” Davies told Love Rugby League.

“He didn’t rush me in. He’d pick me for home games and reserve team matches, and just let me get to grips with the game a little bit before I was thrown in.

“I wanted to go to a good team, because the expectations aren’t as high then, because you have good players around you.

“I started playing on the wing, then I played a couple of games at full-back and stand-off in the reserves, and he kind of slowly looked after me when I was coming in.”

One highlight of his time at Widnes came early, when he played in the centres for the Chemics in their outstanding World Club Challenge win over Canberra Raiders at Old Trafford in 1989.

That game lives long in the memory of many Widnes fans, but for Davies it is just one highlight of a glittering career at the club.

“That happened very quickly, because I’d only just signed the year before,” he explained.

“To play against that Canberra team and beat them was phenomonal, because the first 20 minutes of that game was the quickest game of rugby I’d ever seen, and we were 12-0 down.

“If you look at that Canberra side, they had some of the greatest players ever, so to beat them in the way we beat them was fantastic.

“It ranks up there – you don’t win World Championships at anything easily.

“But I enjoyed winnning the championship with Widnes. Sadly, I never won the Challenge Cup, but we had a couple of opportunities in semi-finals and lost out.

“I enjoyed the Premierships. It was a pleasure to play with such a great team. We had a lot of great individuals.

“After I adapted to rugby league, I really enjoyed it.”

Another rugby union convert who joined Widnes around that time was Scotland international Alan Tait, a player who would go on to enjoy a fine league career himself.

Tait wrote in his book Rugby Rebel that the first Widnes training session he faced was absolutely brutal, as Laughton tried to test out his new code hopper.

Davies confirms that the first session was tough, though he coped well with it due to his previous training with Llanelli. Now, he still has come banter for his former team-mate too.

“I remember talking to a couple of the boys, and them saying ‘Oh God, here we go! It’ll be a hard training session now!’ just to see how fit the new boys are,” Davies said.

“He wanted to put the union boys through their paces because he wanted to know how fit we were, and how much work he needed to do on us, because he didn’t know how fit we were because union was an amateur game.

“I was lucky, I always worked hard at my fitness. I played for Llanelli, and they had a good fitness coach, and were always very competitive in training.

“So it was hard [at Widnes] but I felt quite comfortable. It wasn’t any harder than a hard session with Llanelli.

“You’ve got to remember that Taity was playing in the Borders somewhere, somewhere out of the way like.

“I played for a proper club, tell him!”

One man who made a recent journey in the opposite direction to Davies was Sam Burgess, whose ill-fated spell in English rugby union ended in pretty ignominious circumstances last year.

Davies disagrees with the assertion that there was more spotlight, and therefore more pressure, on Burgess to succeed.

As the Welshman explains, there was no back-up option for union converts to league in his day, due to union’s ridiculous and hypocritical rules on ‘amateurism’, which were often ignored when it was convenient to do so.

“I didn’t have that much time, although it was a natural progression,” he said.

“Even Sam Burgess, to a degree, was given time, and in the club side he was given a run.

“The problem is that a lot of them [coaches] don’t know what do with the converts.

“The pressure was the same on me as any other player. The people up North would never know the sacrifice I made to go up there.

“I was captain of Wales, and the shock that happened down there was tremendous.

“If I’d have failed, I would never, ever have been able to go back. It wasn’t like Sam Burgess, who could go back and play for Souths.

“If I’d failed I couldn’t go anywhere – I couldn’t go home. I’d have just had to get a normal job and give my rugby up.

“So the pressure then was far greater, because you couldn’t go back.

“Now, if you’re not successful in one code, you can just go back to doing the other one.”

Of course, Davies did not fail, and he went on to play 10 times for Great Britain and nine times for Wales in a glittering international career.

One of the highlights of that GB career was the fine try he scored at Wembley in 1994 against the Kangaroos in the 8-4 First Test victory for the British.

The try itself will need no description for British league fans, and it was a moment that Davies himself enjoyed tremendously, not least as a vindication of his world-class ability.

“Having played against Australia and against New Zealand, and having toured in 1991 and won in New Zealand, but also having played in Canterbury in 1991,” he said.

“I scored tries in the NRL, the hardest competition I’ve ever played in, I kind of was not in awe of the Australians.

“I enjoyed pitting my wits against them.

“There are a couple of tries in my career where people are always telling me that they knew where they were when I scored them.

“Even all over Wales, as well as England, people come up to me and tell me they remember where they were when I scored that try at Wembley.

“I had played against Canberra Raiders in the Sevens, and I stood up Brett Mullins (Kangaroo fullback) on that particular day in Sydney.

“So at Wembley, a gap opened up. Maybe I should have passed to Denis Betts inside, but I thought, ‘This is what dreams are made of.’

“You know, playing at Wembley in an Ashes Test match, after I’d converted from union with people thinking I wouldn’t make it, this was the kind of opportunity which when it comes along you have to take it.”

The demise of the Great Britain team is something which saddens Davies, though he is pleased to see that the Welsh national side, the current European Champions, are progressing well with John Kear as coach.

“I do understand why they wanted to do it [split GB],” he said.

“Because they wanted to make the World Cup have more teams competing in it.

“But I was sorry that Great Britain stopped. But, then again, I’m not sure how many players [from the Celtic countries] would get in.

“I think maybe Danny Brough could be influential for Great Britain against the Aussies and Kiwis, maybe Ben Flower.

“But I was very proud of the fact that I played for Great Britain, as I was playing for Wales, but playing for Great Britain was a huge honour.

“[For Wales] it’s very difficult now, because they’re starting from grassroots. They haven’t got the marquee players that used to come up from union.

“Both games, union and league, are professional now, and a lot of rugby union players don’t go to rugby league any more.

“A lot of them aren’t good enough! But a lot of them are earning too much money in union.

“So it’s very difficult to see how Wales can get the marquee players unless they grow them themselves.

“At the moment, I think that’s happening.”

Davies does believe that there are players in rugby union’s top echelons who could excel in league’s ranks.

“If you look at someone like George North, or Liam Williams, Manu Tuiliagi, Stuart Hogg – I think it would take time for them to adapt, but they would adapt because of their quality,” he explained.

“Then we would have to wait and see to see how successful they would be.

“But I think a lot of them would enjoy the game – it’s an enjoyable game to play.”

One thing the former Great Britain player is convinced of, however, is of the importance of the international game to the continuing progress of rugby league.

If that international presence is not there, then the sport runs the risk of becoming ghettoised, something which Davies strongly believes that it does not deserve.

“I’m involved in television, so it’s very difficult for me to comment sometimes,” he said.

“But I talk from my past experiences, and I do think that international rugby and the Four Nations is vital.

“With England, New Zealand and Australia, it’s got to be competitive and it’s got to be good, and it’s got to go to the masses.

“It’s got to be on terrestial television. I hope it’s a fantastic series and that people watch it.

“That’s the thing – people have got to watch it.

“I was lucky, I scored my tries in semi-finals against Leeds, and against New Zealand and Australia on BBC with huge viewing figures.

“That’s the difference. Maybe that’s why my profile was enhanced, because I did it on the biggest stage with the bigger audiences.

“I do feel that’s what the international game has got to do. It’s got to really, really push it, and get it out to the masses.

“It’s a great game, and it needs to be seen, and seen by as many people as they can.

“They’ve changed to the summer now, and only the real hardcore rugby league fans follow it through the summer.

“But living and working across the UK, I see that people love rugby league, and they’re huge supporters of it.

“If they moved the Challenge Cup to after rugby union’s Six Nations, and then finish it then, then football fans and rugby union fans would watch it while their season is on.

“It would be great if they could do the Challenge Cup then, then the Super League, then the Grand Final in October, then the international rugby league after that.

“All of a sudden, the soccer fans could get back into it watching a meaningful competition.

“It’s such a great game, people need to be watching it.

“Obviously, there’s a balance of money with Sky and everything, but you need superstars, you need kids watching it – that’s what the game’s about.

“You’ve just not got to have any small-mindedness, and appreciate what the sport has got.”

In conclusion, Davies ruminated on what had been his proudest moment in an eventful and well-decorated career.

He has no doubt about what makes him proudest in terms of rugby league.

“To be successful in Australia was my biggest achievement,” he admitted..

“Not many British boys do it.”

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