The man who experienced the ultimate rugby rollercoaster ride
It was 20 years ago this autumn that Mefin Davies made his first start for Wales. What followed was pretty much the ultimate rugby rollercoaster ride.
For the next 18 months, he was a regular fixture in the national team at hooker. Then, in the summer of 2004, he suddenly found himself out of work following the demise of the Celtic Warriors. But, less than a year after that dark time, he was to share in the first Welsh Grand Slam since 1978.
It has been some rugby journey, one that continues today at the age of 50 as forwards coach at the Dragons, a role he really relishes.
Born in Nantgaredig, he attended Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Bro Myrddin in Carmarthen and started out with the town’s Quins, ahead of spells of sterling service with Dunvant and Neath.
It was following a move to Pontypridd that he finally broke into the Wales team, having trod the club boards for the best part of a decade. He was just a couple of months short of his 30th birthday when he made his Test debut as a replacement against South Africa out in Cape Town.
He soon made up for lost time, impressing with his scrummaging and old school graft, with caps coming thick and fast over the next two seasons.
But then, with the folding of the Celtic Warriors, who he had joined amid the regional revolution of 2003, his world turned upside down. The other four regions were full up at hooker and he found himself without a team and without a job.
It was, he has said, like a cattle market, with players being called into a room one-by-one to learn their fate.
Davies was the highest profile casualty from what he has described as a horrific and devastating experience. They were hard times and he has admitted it left him feeling very low.
The Warriors’ head coach Lynn Howells went as far as to call what happened to the then 17-cap hooker “disgusting”, saying he deserved much better as an international who had given his all for the cause.
To make the situation even more bizarre, Davies remained Wales’ first choice hooker through that summer, starting against both Argentina and South Africa on tour.
But, on his return home, he needed to make a living, so he went back to his former employment as a control engineer for a technology firm, working part-time, while playing for Neath in the semi-pro Welsh Premiership. The top hooker in the land was earning £9,000 a year from rugby.
An attractive offer came in to join Stade Francais on a two-year-deal, but they wanted him to focus all his energies on them, which would have meant giving up playing for Wales. That was too high a price to pay. His heart and soul were in representing his country. His reward for that loyalty was to follow in the shape of a Grand Slam.
Come the start of the 2004 autumn internationals, Davies found himself restricted to a bench berth against South Africa due to his lack of first class rugby, leaving him gutted as it was a situation out of his control.
But handed a starting spot versus Romania, he shone in a thumping 66-7 win and kept the No 2 jersey for the following week’s showdown with New Zealand.
That was to be some occasion as Wales came tantalisingly close to their first win over the All Blacks since 1953, with Davies capping a tremendous display by forcing his way over for a try in a ‘what could have been’ 26-25 defeat.
By the time of the Six Nations, he had been snapped up by Gloucester, having caught the eye when called into action by the Ospreys. Gloucester’s then coach Dean Ryan was amazed at his good fortune in being able to recruit both “a complete footballer” and “a great bloke”.
Davies was to start every match for Wales during an unforgettable 2005 Championship clean-sweep, despite suffering a fractured thumb to his throwing hand midway through, leaving it black and swollen. Soldiering on through the discomfort, he proved a key figure in establishing the solid set-piece platform that enabled Mike Ruddock’s team to play and how they played.
A first Slam in 27 years was sealed in style with a 32-20 victory over Ireland on a balmy March day in Cardiff that still gets the goosebumps going today.
It was a memorable experience for Davies, who was right at the heart of it all. However, as he looks back now, he actually picks out another match from his international career as the one that resonates the most.
“The New Zealand game, from earlier that season, when we lost by one point, is the match that always sticks in my mind,” he says.
“I scored a try and we were so close to beating the best. As for my try, was it 50 cms or 50 metres – can’t remember!
“The Grand Slam in 2005 was the other thing that comes to mind, in terms of a special collection of games. To make history in the way we did was special.”
For Davies, it meant all the more after what he had been through and it was an achievement that spoke volumes for his resolve and his character.
“Giving up would have been the easy option – the hard option was to prove people wrong,” he said. That he certainly did.
He was to win 38 caps in all, with his final Test outing coming against Australia in Brisbane in June 2007. But there was to be another international scalp for him in November 2009 following his move to Leicester.
“We beat South Africa at Welford Road. We outscrummaged them. I loved that. That’s a good memory. I did enjoy that game,” he said.
After a spell back in Wales with the Ospreys, he finally hung up his boots in 2012 at the age of 39. He moved into coaching, with the region and Swansea RFC, before joining Worcester in 2014, spending six years at Sixways ahead of linking up with the Dragons in 2020.
“Nothing will beat playing rugby, there is no doubt about it. Coaching is a totally different role,” he says.
“You can prepare, but you are not on the pitch, you are not live, you are not in pain, you are not trying to solve problems instantly for the next second or the next action of the game.
“On the flip side, at the end of the game your emotions are running very high or very low in terms of winning or losing or you even feel lucky at times that you’ve won games when you’ve played badly. There’s all that to manage.”
As for his coaching style, he says: “It’s a matter of deciding who the person is and making sure you can work with them.
“Some people need that arm around them, but then, on the flip side, some people are black and white, they just need to know and that’s enough. So you have got to choose your coaching style in order of who you are speaking to.”
Always a player at heart, Davies still enjoys getting stuck in himself at times.
“I wear studs in every training session!” he reveals. “I do a little bit of contact work if we are short of players. You forget the feel of it. That’s the bizarre thing.
“If a hooker is injured or whatever, I will go In for the front row stuff. You do learn a lot from being in there. This is why I don’t think you can ever replicate playing.
“You wouldn’t know sometimes from watching outside, but once you go in, you go ‘Hey mate, that’s wrong’ and then all of a sudden you open a conversation and you are actually coaching from experience again. It’s great.
“When it comes to the scrum, you have got to be serious. I just love scrums. I love it, I’ll be honest with you, I’m not ashamed to say it!”
He concluded: “As a coach, you get satisfaction from seeing players develop, growing and getting better. As a group here, we are trying our best to the very end.”
So that’s Mefin Davies at 50, still living and breathing rugby and still giving it his all.
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