Nigel Davies, the former Llanelli and Wales international has applied his trade across both Wales and England in numerous coaching roles since retiring. However, his latest challenge is arguably the toughest job of the lot, a National Council election campaign.
With over 30 years of experience within the game, he’s now applying his off-field business knowledge with his expansive view of the game in a hope for change.
Speaking exclusively to Last Word Nigel Davies explained his rationale for the campaign and what he wants to do should he get on the Council.
“I’ve always been involved in rugby. I came through with Trimsaran and at the time it was the centre of the community. It gave me so much as a person. I was able to go on to represent Wales and make a career as a player and coach,” he explained.
“It taught me how to win and lose and how to work in a team. I’ve picked up a lot of experience down the years as a player, coach and more importantly an administrator. I feel I’ve got a deep understanding of the game in Wales. With that background I feel I could add value to the Council.
“The Council has experience and knowledge, but less so of professional rugby and understanding the community game at the same time. Understanding them both is vital, I know in my time in the Premiership with Ebbw Vale and Merthyr taught me a lot about the community work.”
It’s working closely within the community that he hopes will gain him votes. He now looks to add strategy to the WRU’s approach and believes he is the man to do just this.
“The Council meets twice a year to ratify certain policies, but once you’re on the Council the expectation is that you’ll get put on other committees depending on your skills and knowledge. I was fortunate that when I played top class rugby it was still amateur, so I needed a career too.
“I’m a graduate in mechanical and production engineering. I worked in the automotive industry for 12 years in a senior position, and I’ve worked as a managing consultant for several businesses. I understand how processes work and how you’ve got to set targets and objectives and deploying those throughout the organisation to ensure everyone is accountable to achieve what the business needs to achieve,” Nigel explained.
“That, combined with my rugby knowledge puts me in a position to work on these committees and ask the right questions to make sure that there is a clear strategy being implemented.
“If you look at the WRU website there are a lot of good words and strategy, but my aim would be to see what does that mean to your community game? What does it mean to the WRU staff working in the community game? How do we know if we’re actually delivering at that level?”
Following a delay in the election campaign due to the COVID pandemic, Nigel Davies strongly believes that this is a perfect opportunity to enforce change to the structure, where needed.
“As we’ve seen over the last few months, the world has changed forever. The game of rugby has been changing over the last 20 years, and we’ve got to be aggressive over changes whilst being careful to avoid losing what rugby is all about.
“Sometimes professional sport moves away from that due to money, understandably so, which is fine because that’s where it needs to go, but you need to understand there are still values that need to be upheld to attract people into the game.”
Prior to the social distancing measures the candidates held meetings within each district and last week saw webinars take place to convey any final thoughts.
“I’ve been to pretty much all the districts to explain why I’m running for the Council,” said Nigel. “People [clubs] can make up their own mind then after giving them a background about myself. From the feedback there was a lot of concern out there within the community game, about where the players and clubmen and volunteers are coming from. That engagement is really important and needs to come from the top.
“When I was at Trimsaran I had a clear vision that I could play nine for Wales, because they were affiliated to Llanelli and they were linked to Wales. You could see that pathway and when I watched Wales play I knew them and that showed me there was a way to do that. We need to re-connect that and make sure the clubs see that as they play a massive part in the Welsh game.
“We have to make sure that the vast majority of our players are from Wales, and there’s no reason why they can’t be. We’re equal to any nation and there are clear and bright people in Wales and we have to prove them, which we don’t always do.
“We can’t bury our head in the sand over our core community game, it needs support.
Running against Nigel Davies is former teammate Ieuan Evans, and Nigel believes he’ll be a strong opponent to beat to the seat.
“He’s a very good candidate, who has a different skill base to me, which is good as it gives people an opportunity, but one thing I have done is work continuously in rugby for around 30 years, one way or another, which gives a certain insight into how things worked and how the development structure works as that’s really key.”
Having coached in both Wales and England, with Gloucester, Davies believes there can be lessons learned from the pathway system and how they operate.
“I think Wales has one of the better pathways for player development, but we have to as we have limited numbers of players, so we have to make sure we’re very good at working with the player base we have.
“Those players come from the community clubs. We’re seeing more and more non-Welsh born players playing for Wales, and there are lots of arguments over that. It’s not my preference, that’s always to have somebody born and bred in Wales, but those are the rules and some of those players have done a fantastic job. We have to focus on getting as many Welsh players playing in the system as possible so we have a recognisable Welsh team playing for us.”
Despite putting coaching to one side for the campaign, he hasn’t full turned his back to a role within management again.
“I was 55 recently, and one thing that has taught me is never say never. I wouldn’t say I’ll never get back into coaching as I still have a passion for it and it’s still a big part of what I do, as I mentor a few people.
“I feel my in-depth understanding of the game in Wales twinned with my business knowledge, my strengths lie better in the administration side of the game, at such a crucial time. It’s not a paid role and there is a lot of commitment, but this is something I want to do. It’s important we get it right now as there are real concerns now.
“It would be to the detriment of our society if we lose the community aspect of our game, which has happened in some other sports.”
A place on the National Council can often lead to other things and despite not getting ahead of himself Nigel wouldn’t overlook the chance to become WRU Chairman, should the opportunity arise.
“First of all it’s about securing the votes, which isn’t guaranteed. All I can ask is we get a fair hearing and then it’s about getting stuck in and make a difference. In Wales, we’re a selection of smaller communities, and lots of people in the rugby fraternity have said that this time has been great for helping out in the communities and supporting each other.
“I live in Usk and me and the wife had coronavirus, so for a period of two weeks we couldn’t go out, but the community helped us with groceries etc. Off the back of this there is a chance to engage in the hub of communities.”
It’s this community bond that Nigel Davies is looking to harness in order to help boost community rugby in Wales.
“Opportunities will take place in the next four to five months that’ll never arise again. Grasping those now is key.”
Looking at wider issues within the game, he turns his attention to coaching. ‘Is there enough Welsh coaches?’ I ask.
“Based on the evidence of the regional game, there is an issue of Welsh coaches. I find it difficult to believe that we haven’t got any Welsh coaches. What we tend to do in Wales is, that it’s very difficult to be a prophet in your own land and the only way we can get around that is by sending strong messages from the top that there are good coaches out there.
“One of the potential issues is where do they cut their teeth? This evolves around the Premiership and where we see it. That is still up in the air from my point of view in the role it plays. I’ve been trying to sort that out from the outside for years and we still haven’t gotten anywhere with it.
“How can we not have a level below the professional tier? Statistically, Welsh international players have played on average 30 games in the Premiership. It’s been a great stepping stone for players and coaches, yet we’re downgrading the level, which decreases the pathway. This is what I’m talking about with the clarity of the strategy and how it’s employed.
“It’s one thing to say we want Welsh coaches, but how do we get those? Where do they come from? How many do we want? You’ve got to have clarity in the thought process.”
Having spent a few seasons at Gloucester and within the Welsh Premiership, he recognises the extra vision that has allowed him to take aboard.
“It just added to my knowledge. It was a different way of working. People say they’re passionate about rugby in Wales, but you want to see Gloucester at Kingsholm on a Friday night. They love their rugby and they get attendances of over 12,000 which is phenomenal. I really enjoyed my time there and my first year was very successful.
“Equally, when I went back to Ebbw Vale after some time off I learnt so much there as I went from coaching five nights a week to two nights. You have to be clear and precise, what you want from a player and how the coaching sessions run. You have very little time to nail things and target the areas you need to.
“In that first season we started poorly as I was trying to get them to play a certain way and we didn’t have the time or skill set to do that. We then re-structured things and won the league playing some fantastic rugby. It was a very rewarding period.”
The former Llanelli centre is also proud to see his side back within the top echelons of European and Celtic rugby. The Scarlets lifted the Pro12 title in 2017 and have been at the business end of competitions ever since.
“It’s been great to see them winning and the style they are playing with, which has been synonymous with the Scarlets. What was pleasing for me is that a lot of the Welsh boys had come through the system when I was there. Jon Davies, Rhys Priestland, Gareth Davies, Liam Williams etc. They were there to be invested in that group.
“When I first joined the Scarlets we moved from Stradey park to Parc Y Scarlets and things were tight financially, so what we decided to do was invest in the youngsters. We had to get rid of a lot of experience, which was painful, but we invested in the youth and communicated with the supporters that it may be a slow process, but they gave us huge support.
“That invested and exposure to the game early on has benefited Wales. It was great to see the success with those players in the team.
Below the Scarlets sits the semi-professional tier of the game. The likes of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea lurk in these depths and Nigel is a firm believer of the Premiership as a developmental ground.
“The Premiership should be the bridge between the professional and community game. I don’t like the idea of ring-fencing the two tiers. If they ring-fence the structure it’ll mean none of the community players will get through. It’s a good step up from regional age grade rugby.
“The issue with age grade rugby is, it’s good up to a point, but then by the time the players are 20/21 they are playing the same players that they have done since 15. Then, when they’re given development contracts and placed in the Premiership, playing in different scenarios in games that really matter, with promotion and relegation, they play against experienced players.
“Fullbacks who are playing against seasoned outside halves, who know how to kick the ball into space and put them under pressure. If you speak to the vast majority of players who had game time at the level then they would tell you they learned a lot from playing under jeopardy.
“They can learn and make some mistakes, whereas at a professional level you can’t make so many. They’ll have a better knowledge and skill base, which is crucial.”
It’s not only the players who can benefit within the Premiership though.
“These Premiership clubs are linked to community teams and it’s great to see these boys coming through the system that way. I’ve seen on numerous occasions how that’s worked. What you need is that engagement from regional rugby to the Premiership clubs and then from those to the community. There’s a clear pathway and pushing players through it. Those clubs who see their players involved should be appreciated.”
With some stability starting to enter the structure the BBC have began televising the league, which has added exposure to a level that was typically left untouched.
“It’s upped the profile of the Premiership, the players are more recognised now and the most important thing is people appreciate the level and quality of the league. There were lots of mixed messages coming out about how good it was, but when you see some of the top end games you start to appreciate that it’s a stepping stone for players and it would be even better if you had a clear strategy.”
Discussing what needs to change within Welsh rugby, Nigel looks at the pathway and relationship between those tiers.
“It’s having that clear link from the village clubs, through the Premiership up to the regional and international game. It’s having transparency in the decisions that are made, just allowing the clubs to feel they’re part of that and they have a say,” he said. “When I spoke to the clubs, it was one of the messages I picked up. They want to feel as if they mean something because at the end of the day the WRU is a union of clubs.
“We have to make sure it is the Welsh Rugby Union and not Welsh Rugby PLC.”
Quick fire questions
“My first cap for Wales will always be one, but equally watching Sam [Davies] playing rugby for Gorseinon or schools. The first game in the international stadium and I did manage to score two tries which was special, albeit I got dropped after it. One of my biggest achievements was the nine cup finals with Llanelli, I’m really proud of that and the 498 games I played for them.”
Wales debut vs NZL, what was that like?
“They were a very good team. I can remember it was out in New Zealand and facing the haka was quite something. I was up against my childhood hero Joe Stanley, so we started the game which was tight to start with. I was enjoying it, but then we had an injury and I was sent out to the wing.
“I had never played before or since on the wing, so my only experience of playing there was away to the world champions. I enjoyed the first 35 minutes, the rest of the game, not as much.”
How do you prepare for rugby retirement?
“You got from a timetable and people wanting to speak to you, to nothing, overnight. Unfortunately some haven’t developed any specific careers, so although they have good skills and values they haven’t got particular skills such as medical, accountancy or engineering, so it has to start again.
“It was easier in my time, albeit we didn’t get paid for playing rugby. The vast majority are well paid, but they don’t earn enough money, like footballers, to stop working post-career. The top 5% will probably earn enough that they can invest, but most will have to work when they finish. Back in my day we had careers to switch back into, which was still rather tough.”
How did you balance work and rugby?
“We didn’t get paid anything for my first six or seven years, but we did it because we loved playing. That’s why people still do it at community level and we must ensure that continues to happen for the health of rugby in Wales.”
Favourite place to play?
“Stradey Park. 100%, we used to love playing there. It was near the coast and had good drainage and wide open spaces. It was nice and compact and if we had a crowd of 6-7,000 the place was packed out with a terrific atmosphere. There was nothing quite like it.
“The one that stands out because he was so quick was Jeremy Guscott, he was elusive and most other players you could deal with. He was electrically quick and I had to admire him and that made me worry.”
“Main photo credit”