|Place Of Birth||Penclawdd|
The 23rd August 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the great names in Welsh rugby and a great “All White”.
Swansea’s achievement in 1935 of becoming the first club side ever to turn over the mighty All Blacks is well remembered in the rugby world and more recently, marked on the Blue Plaque placed at the Bryn Road entrance to the famous St Helen’s ground.
But what of the two young striplings who toppled the ‘invincible’ New Zealanders? Celebrated then as now were the half back pairing of Haydn Tanner and Willie Davies, the Gowerton Schoolboys who played with such innocent flair that day in September 1935, to confound the hardened New Zealand skipper Jack “Lugger” Manchester, into an oft quoted exclamation to his home country press post-match: ”Tell them at home we have been beaten. But please don’t tell them it was by a pair of schoolboys!” The recent visit of the soon to be back to back World Champion New Zealand squad in the Rugby World Cup, saw Coach Steve Hansen stood beside that quote which sits outside the St Helen's Lounge on a large banner. He would have appreciated the shock waves felt in 1935 at the stunning result.
Much has been written about Willie Davies’ half-back partner Haydn Tanner, who is acknowledged as one of the great scrum-halves of all time. But William Thomas Harcourt Davies, who was born in Penclawdd a hundred years ago, must surely have been one of the greatest and most naturally gifted players to have faded from the lists of modern rugby comparisons.
Whereas Tanner went on from the famous Swansea win and straight into the Welsh team for an international debut against the All Blacks, for a second tilt at them – and a thrilling 13 to 12 win – Davies had to stand in the shadow of the great Cliff Jones who held the outside-half jersey as his own.
Yet, his own talents had been recognised already. The Telegraph unequivocally endorsed him following Swansea’s great win, describing him as ”a sprite with the touch of genius, that instinctive eye for the opening which marks the perfectly balanced, and with change of pace and direction sufficient to carry him through the smallest gap like an elusive ghost.”
Tanner and Davies, who were cousins, both attended Gowerton Grammar School, where they were still studying and playing their rugby when they were selected in January 1934 to represent Glamorgan against a West of England side. They were watched closely by the Swansea selectors and began appearing in the All Whites first fifteen during 1934-35, when school attendance allowed. Both Willie and Haydn travelled to Blackheath in November 1934 to play that strong English club in the first fixture between the two clubs since 1891. A draw ensued but the youngsters more than held their own, showing great understanding, both lighting up a dull match with flashes of natural flair. The Western Mail said of these early appearances that “the young men have had a psychological effect in each of the games they have played.” Willie Davies’ slight figure would bend and sway like a willow, his eye watching for an unbalanced opponent and his stride naturally tuned to exploit it. It all came so naturally to him. Against Bridgend and watched by the ‘big five’ selectors he “showed positive genius… his try was a masterpiece. It can almost be said that he beat the whole Bridgend side… in a most bewildering fashion.”
Willie played in the 1935 Welsh trials in January along with Haydn, an early glimpse to a greater stage they would both excel on. Not always available for away trips through school commitments, Davies’ place in the Swansea first fifteen was filled by the able Glyn Samuel, a Cambridge undergraduate and gifted all-rounder. It was no surprise within the Swansea club that the Gowerton pair of Tanner and Davies were selected to play the All Blacks on 28th September 1935 at St Helen’s, although many in the wider rugby world may have winced at the audacious selection of so young a pair and the Swansea club had to reassure the headmaster at Gowerton, that the boys were up to facing the mighty All Blacks.
In the South Wales Evening Post the great win by 11 points to 3 was trumpeted: “All Whites rise to great heights of brilliance – DAZZLING HALF-BACKS”. ‘Pendragon’ purred: ”Tanner captured most of the limelight in the first 20 minutes, after which Davies did some bewildering running to pave the way for the two tries which were obtained by Davey. The way he threaded his way through the defence was amazing.”
Of course the Swansea forwards had laid the foundation and throttled any good possession that the New Zealand backs would have normally expected. Dennis Hunt had forced his way over the line for Swansea’s first try. But it was Davies, running onto a bullet of a pass from Tanner, who pivoted, eluded his tackler, drew the full-back and put Claude Davey clean through, allowing the hard running centre to cross the whitewash. A similar move gave Davey his second and sealed the win.
Davies’ ability against top opposition was not in any doubt. But where Tanner was able to bounce into the Welsh side and stay there, Willie Davies could not get selected past the hugely talented Cliff Jones of Llandovery, Cardiff and Cambridge. Davies, the son of a publican at the Ship and Castle, Penclawdd, had to wait ironically, until Claude Davey picked up an injury. Davies made his Welsh debut in 1936 against Ireland, playing at inside centre. 70,000 spectators swamped the Cardiff Arms Park and the Cardiff Fire Brigade had to turn the hoses on them to restore order. “We had never seen anything like it” recalled Davies’ centre partner Wilf Wooller, of that day. Wales won 3 nil.
It was not until 1937 that Willie Davies could claim the red outside-half jersey as his own and team up with Haydn Tanner again, against England, in a 4 points to 3 loss at Twickenham. Davies moved north to attend Leeds University and complete his studies to become a teacher. He played for the Headingly club and St Helen’s was not to see him again. Davies had also found time to play for the London Welsh club while following his studies. He played in the ‘Exiles’ last match before the war, a win he crafted for them against Pontypool. Finally, unable to gain a teaching job near home, he moved permanently north and signed for Bradford Northern RLFC in 1939. By now he had made the Wales fly-half position his own and had six Welsh caps. War was looming and Willie Davies lit up the ground at Belfast as he scored all Wales’ points in their last international before the war. He scored a drop goal from Tanner’s pass and then cleared several players in the heavy rain to score a try and seal the win for Wales. A great way to sign off. With the move to Rugby League, he would burn his bridges and could never play for Wales again in the Union game.
The war came as he was signing for Bradford Northern but he did play rugby during the war and captained the Great Britain Rugby League side that beat a Union XV at the Bradford Odsal Stadium in 1944, a unique achievement. After serving in the RAF during the war, Davies recommenced his rugby career at Bradford Northern, taking them to two Challenge Cup finals at Wembley. In the 1947 Final against Leeds, the opponents admitted they could only win if they could “keep the ball from Willie”. They failed to do so and Bradford Northern won the cup, Davies picking up the prestigious Lance Todd Award as best player in the match. He went on to represent Wales and Great Britain in the Rugby League code. Willie Davies finally hung up his boots in 1950, a beloved and respected League player and a very modest man, who did not consider himself special at all. “Brilliant, and without any ego” was how he described Phil Bennett, when asked on the phone about his favourite players. “Precisely, brilliant and no ego” added his wife as she referred to Willie and his own standing in the game. Willie passed away on 26th September 2002 aged 86. His six Welsh Rugby Union caps against Tanner's twenty five, do not do him justice. He does not appear in the Swansea lists of leading points or try scorers from his time with the club. He was too busy putting others through under the posts. But his skills and grace were honed on the famous pitch by the Swansea Bay and we proudly remember him on this the 100th anniversary of his birth.
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