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Tributes to former Devon and England player Davis

24 May 2022 22:54 | Devon RFU

A FORMER Torquay Athletic rugby player who went on to play for and coach England has died at the age of 80, writes Conrad Sutcliffe.

Mike Davis played 16 times for England between 1963-1970 in the Five Nations tournament and also toured New Zealand and Australia.

Davis played for the Tics as a second-row forward and for St Luke’s College in Exeter while a student there.

Later he played for Rosslyn Park, Harlequin FC, the Royal Navy, Devon and Staffordshire, whom he captained to the County Championship in 1970.

Between 1979-83 Davis was England’s head coach and steered the national team to a Grand Slam in the 1980 Five Nations Championship. He was talent spotted as a coach in youth rugby having tutored England under-19s to a Grand Slam.

Davis also coached Sherborne RFC in Dorset, where he was a teacher at the public school in the town between 1974-2002. The school team he coached was unbeaten for four years!

Barney Bettesworth, who played with Davis for Torquay Athletic in the early 1960s, said it was no surprise his former team-mate achieved so much in the game.

“Mike was a great leader, a motivator, an encourager and someone who always strived to bring out the best in his players and pupils,” said Bettesworth. “He was excellent company and always smiling.”

Bettesworth said he had fond memories of working as a deck-chair attendant on Torquay sea front with Davis when the two were students in the early 1960s.

Alec Mike Davis was born in Staffordshire in January 1942 and moved to Torquay aged five when parents Alex and Olive relocated to the town and opened the Vanity Fair hair-dressing salon in Lucius Street.

Dad Alex had served in the RAF and also sang in nightclubs in his spare time.

“Mike was not a bad crooner either and one of his favourite songs was Pennies from Heaven,” said Bettesworth.

Mike went to Torre Primary School then Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, where he stayed for seven years and was head boy during his A-level studies.

Dad Alec had been a rugby player for Cheltenham and Gloucestershire so it was almost inevitable Mike would pull on the boots sooner or later.

There was no organised rugby at the grammar school in the late 1950s so Davis took himself down to Torquay, where his powerhouse game was soon noticed by the Devon selectors.

Paul Harris, the Devon RFU historian, said: “Davis made his county debut as a 19-year-old against Surrey in September 1961 as a late replacement for Geoff Bayles of Barnstaple. It was reported he was one of few successes in a poor game.”

Davis went on to make 22 further appearances for Devon up to 1966.

Davis quickly appeared on the radar of the England selectors and earned his call-up after impressing in a trial match at Torquay during the big freeze during the winter of 1963.

In those days teams were assembled for a final trial at Twickenham, but the ground was frozen solid and the match switched to warmer climes on home turf at the Recreation Ground.

“My brother was originally in the Possibles XV, but was moved to the Probables when another player became injured and that was how he got picked to play for England,” said younger brother Brian, who was an England under-19 second-row himself.

The Davis brothers played alongside each other for Torquay Athletic and had one game together for Devon.

Davis made his England debut against Wales in Cardiff and was capped another 15 times before bowing out against Scotland at Murrayfield in March 1970.

“My brother used to joke that he was dropped more times than he played as even in those days, when there were not so many international matches as there are now, 16 games in eight seasons is not very many,” said brother Brian.

“I think one of the reasons why Mike never went on a British Lions tour was that he was never in the England side when the tours were due and the selectors would not pick you unless you were playing internationals at the time.”

Mike Davies spent three years as a trainee teacher at St Luke’s College in Exeter then joined the Royal Navy for another three years on a short-service commission to teach cadets mathematics.

“He came out as a lieutenant and a captain,” said Brian. “His rank was a lieutenant, but he captained the Royal Navy rugby team to the Inter Services Championship too.”

Back in Civvy Street Davies went to teach at Haileybury School in Hertfordshire, where he met wife-to-be Jenny, who was the matron. The couple were married for more than 50 years and had twin sons – Peter and Simon – and a daughter Jo.

Davis initially played rugby for Rosslyn Park, then switched to Harlequin FC, where former St Luke’s College pal Doug Yeabsley was then a player.

Yeabsley, who played rugby and cricket for Devon, said Davis was a tough competitor who impressed one of the world’s best-known and respected second-rows when they went head to head.

“Mike was always very fit and aggressive but totally fair,” said Yeabsley.

“Colin Meads (133 games for the All Blacks) described Mike as the best second-row he ever played against.

“During England’s 1963 tour to New Zealand and Australia he played most of the game against the Wallabies with a dislocated shoulder.

“He was totally committed in every game I played with him.”

Davis went back to coaching at club and school level in Dorset after his international career ended. He took up golf and continued to play as much as he could even after contracting Parkinson’s Disease.

“Even if it took 20 minutes to complete one hole Mike still played golf, which shows what kind of a man he was,” said Yeabsley.

Mike Davies died in hospital in early May. His wife and children survive him. His funeral will take place on June 9 at 2.30pm in Sherborne Abbey, which is just a dropped pass away from the school he taught at for nearly 30 years.