Jonathan Davies on Wales v Western Samoa at 1995 Rugby League World Cup

Jonathan Davies
Jonathan Davies led Wales to a 28-6 win over France in their opening match of the 1995 Rugby League World Cup

Jonathan Davies was used to being one of the smaller players on the field. In fact, he had made a career of leaving hulking opponents trailing in his wake.

But in case he had any doubts about the disparity in size when Wales faced Western Samoa for a place in the 1995 Rugby League World Cup semi-finals, Davies was given a gentle reminder.

“It was a special game for me because my son Scott was the mascot, and I remember him tugging my shirt as the teams were facing each other before the game,” Davies tells BBC Sport Wales.

“He turned to me and said: ‘Dad, they’re big, aren’t they?’ And I said: ‘Yes, they are big, Scott.’

“It was just a really a memorable occasion. I’m so glad the game lived up to expectations.”

Davies’ distinctive grin hints at how highly in his glittering career he regards this game, which will be shown on BBC One Wales on Saturday.

Wales is commonly regarded as a rugby nation, with union casting an almost religious hold over it since the sport’s emergence in the mid-1800s.

But for one night in October 1995, it was rugby league which captured the country’s imagination.

Until that year, union had been an amateur sport and, during the early 1990s, scores of Wales’ leading players were prised away by rugby league and the money on offer in its professional competitions.

It was an almighty talent drain, with Davies – Wales’ great hope of that era – followed to the north of England by Scott Gibbs, Dai Young, Scott Quinnell and many more.

“When we went to rugby league, the last thing we wanted was the demise of Welsh rugby union because we were Wales through and through,” Davies adds.

“We wanted Welsh rugby union to do well but purely for financial reasons we went.”

While Welsh rugby union endured a fallow period, league enjoyed its moment in the sun.

That came on Monday, 9 October, 1995, at a cramped Vetch Field, Swansea City Football Club’s old ground, which was sold out for Wales’ second group game of the Rugby League World Cup.

An imposing Western Samoa side provided the opposition, and the prize for the winners was a semi-final against England.

This was the first time Wales had competed in the tournament as an independent nation, having previously formed part of Great Britain teams.

Davies, who had starred for Great Britain as well as club sides Widnes and Warrington, was the captain and inspiration for a Wales squad packed with talent.

“There were big names everywhere,” he says.

“It was a great squad and we had a few northern lads with the Welsh connections to bolster it for the World Cup, with Kelvin Skerrett, Anthony Sullivan, Iestyn Harris and a young Keiron Cunningham and so on.”

Harris and Cunningham were 19 and 18 at the time, at the start of careers which would see them establish themselves as modern greats of rugby league.

Their youthful exuberance was complemented by the experience of John Devereux, Paul Moriarty and others poached from union, whose physical power would be tested by the abrasive Samoans.

‘Ferocious, brutal – one hell of a game’

Scott Quinnell (left) and Allan Bateman
Scott Quinnell (left) and Allan Bateman were among the rugby union stars to play for Wales at the 1995 Rugby League World Cup

“I think the Samoans really caught the imagination of everyone that World Cup and everyone thought they were the real kind of dark horses for that tournament,” Davies recalls.

“The side they had, [John] Schuster and [Va’aiga ‘Inga’] Tuigamala, they were all NRL [National Rugby League, Australia’s premier competition] players.

“It’s also worth remembering a lot of these players played in the 1991 [union] World Cup when they beat Wales, so they fancied their chances and it was going to be ferocious.

“But I knew, looking at the side that we had, we could play any type of rugby and if they wanted to mix it, our boys were not going to take a back step.

“I was thinking this is going to be absolutely brutal, one hell of a game.

“The crowd came with expectations and the game didn’t let anyone down.”

Tackles from the match still prompt a wince and a shudder 25 years on; 80 minutes of hit after bone-rattling hit.

There were moments of class too, Harris offering a glimpse of what was to come with Leeds and Bradford by scoring a dazzling try, and Davies kicking with signature craft to set up a score for Sullivan.

Western Samoa scored an excellent try of their own through Vila Matautia but another of Wales’ union converts, Kevin Ellis, touched down to secure a 22-10 victory.

“We really enjoyed it. It meant everything to the boys coming back to Wales,” says Davies.

“There was pressure on us. The last thing we wanted to do was come back and lose in the big game.

“We beat in England in Ninian Park previously and we’d lost narrowly to New Zealand, so to come back and perform as we did in the World Cup, it meant everything to us.”

Wales’ reward for beating Western Samoa was a semi-final at Old Trafford against co-hosts England.

The odds were stacked against Davies and his colleagues and, despite a brave effort, they fell to a 25-10 defeat.

England went on to lose in the final against the favourites and serial winners Australia, though Wales had gained a legion of new followers.

Even with union turning professional after its own World Cup that year, there was enough quality in the Welsh rugby league ranks to see a squad still including Harris and Cunningham reach the semi-finals of the next league World Cup in 2000.

However, since then, the sport has fallen way behind union, the undisputed king of the codes in Wales.

Davies feels it was a missed opportunity that league in Wales could not capitalise on the popularity of the team’s exploits in 1995.

“And it never will now because rugby union has gone professional,” he adds.

But even if Welsh rugby league did not kick on from that short but golden period, Davies and his former team-mates will always cherish those memories.

“Anytime you put the Welsh jersey on, irrespective of what sport it is or what level it is, it still means a lot to you because you’re born and bred a Welshman,” he says.

“Going to England in the semi-final was a massive ask for us but that was what we wanted to achieve.

“I think going away from Wales, going to all different parts of England, we didn’t really see each other as much as we would have in Wales.

“So when we got together we really enjoyed it. We had a great time together.”

Wales v Western Samoa at the 1995 Rugby League World Cup will be shown on BBC One Wales at 17:15 BST on BBC One Wales on Saturday, 11 July.

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