Davies holds the key for Gatland’s Welsh sign-off

Quiet and unassuming, Jonathan Davies’ influence on this Wales team contrasts somewhat with that of Alun Wyn Jones.

Quiet and unassuming, Jonathan Davies’ influence on this Wales team contrasts somewhat with that of Alun Wyn Jones.

But while the blood and thunder of Jones leads from the front, Davies is probably the second-most important player in this Grand Slam-winning side.

He played every single minute of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations – only Josh Adams did the same for Warren Gatland’s men – and continued to exude class in midfield.

Now 31, Davies has long been in the world-class bracket for international centres but his importance to this team in both attack and defence could hold the key in Japan this autumn.

Davies will have a point to prove in Japan after a knee injury ruled him out of the last World Cup four years ago.

On that occasion, Wales had to mix and match in midfield as injuries ransacked their backline but still came within a whisker of the semi-finals.

Since then, injuries have continued to worry Davies. He missed the 2018 Championship but when he plays for Wales, the Scarlets and indeed the British & Irish Lions have been at their best.

The man of the series against the All Blacks on that famous 2017 Lions Tour, Davies was then sublime during Wales’ 2019 Grand Slam.

And his leadership skills have started to come to the fore as one of the senior statesman in the Wales team.

He has had to move on from his long-term partnership with Jamie Roberts as the latter’s international career has come to a close.

For so long the junior partner, Davies has had to take on the senior role alongside Hadleigh Parkes.

Davies led Wales for the first time during this year’s Guinness Six Nations when Jones was rested for the trip to Rome.

And while Wales were not at their free-flowing best that day, Davies was a pitcture of consistency in midfield once more.

Davies will never be the sort of try-scorer to rival some of the great No.13s of the past.

His try tally is dwarfed by the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Jeremy Guscott and Will Greenwood.

Indeed, 73 caps into his Wales career, he has only crossed the whitewash 15 times – for reference, Jonathan Joseph has twice as many in roughly half the number of Test matches.

But Davies’ attacking brilliance is about so much more than just tries. He has been a picture of consistency across two Lions Tour, the only back to start the last six Tests for the tourists but in that time, has yet to score a try.

And yet, the great coaches recognise that he brings so much more than that to his game.

The cultured left foot that can kick both long and short adds to Wales’ options, and relieves some of the pressure from Gareth Anscombe or Dan Biggar.

His powerful right-arm fend has embarrassed many a defender – just ask Johnny Sexton, who felt its full force back in the 2015 Championship or Seta Tamanivalu, who was poleaxed in New Zealand a year later.

His passing range and offloading skills – while not his major weapon – are under-rated as well.

But when you think of Davies in attack, inevitably, it is of the outside centre in the wide left channel, going through the gears, bumping and gliding into space to set up another attack for a team in red.

And while we have mentioned that he doesn’t maybe score the tries that other great centres have – only Scott Gibbs and Tom Shanklin have more.

And Davies makes them count – of the 13 games he has crossed for a try in, Wales have won 11.

The man they call the Fox often sniffs out a score at a crucial time like his strike against Scotland earlier this year.

Wales have other options, of course, should Davies go down, notably Owen Watkin and Scott Williams.

Both of those guys bring different attacking skills to the No.13 jersey. Williams has experience and distribution while Watkin has the dancing feet.

But it is in defence that Gatland would probably miss Davies the most.

It is not just the tackles that Davies makes – and he makes a lot of them – more than any other Welsh back in the 2019 Championship and the fourth-most of any back from any team.

The 13 channel is often considered the hardest to defend, with the tackler having to consider whether to shoot out the line and shut down a move before it can go any wider, or to sit and drift and shepherd if the numbers dictate.

Few make those split-second decisions better than Davies in the world game, borne out of experience and innate understanding of the game.

Davies made dominant hit after dominant hit during that Lions Tour in New Zealand and continued that in the Grand Slam earlier this year, snuffing out attacks before they could get going.

And with new faces like Parkes inside him and Josh Adams outside, Davies leads the way for Shaun Edwards’ drilled defence that only shipped seven tries all Championship this year.

Davies may not bring the glossy attacking skills of his namesake Jiffy from back in the day.

But the centre heads to Japan looking to cement his legacy as one of Wales’ finest-ever centres – and Gatland will have everything crossed that his star man shines bright on the biggest stage of all.