The sad loss of our “humble man”

We are sad to announce the loss of Phil Davies, the former Cheltenham, Harlequins, England and British Lions centre who passed away on January 25th aged 89.

This is the obituary posted in The Times, detailing some of Phil’s achievements:


Phil Davies

Harlequins and England centre who made his name with the British Lions in South Africa in 1955

When the Harlequins and England centre WPC “Phil” Davies was selected for the British Lions tour to South Africa in 1955, he had to ask his employers for time off to make the 24-match trip. “I was teaching biology at Christ’s Hospital School and had to ask the headmaster for 15 weeks’ leave,” he recalled. “Eventually a reply came saying that the Council of Almoners would give me leave and that an anonymous governor had donated the £50 [about £1,300 today] it would cost to employ a replacement.”

Although Lions tours were often long and gruelling in those days, they were undoubtedly the pinnacle of a player’s career, which fuelled an immense team spirit that just about transcended national divides. “The melding of the squad was so helped by the Welsh lads with their faith and passionate chapel voices,” Davies recalled. “They liked their singing, with Cliff Morgan at the piano. The Irish came with their storytelling and humour. But the Scots were a different matter; they spoke a different language. They were no doubt as baffled by our southern drawl and BBC pronunciation. We learnt to laugh uneasily together.”

Playing with the Lions added a new dimension to the displays of some of those who toured, including Davies, whose partnership with Jeff Butterfield, England’s most capped back at the time, came to be regarded as one of the best midfield combinations in the world.

Davies played in three of the four Tests. Two were won, but he was dropped for the fourth match and South Africa squared the series 2-2. While his form declined in the last three weeks of the tour, he will be remembered for the pace and direct running that, coupled with the cunning of Butterfield, the power of the teenage Irish winger Tony O’Reilly and the brilliance of Morgan and Dickie Jeeps, caused the Springboks so many problems. Regarded as one of the greatest Lions tours, it made a profound impact on the hosts. One commentator wrote: “South Africa owes a manifold debt to the British Isles touring team. They have rescued our rugby from becoming a matter merely of boot and brawn.”

Davies’s success was all the more remarkable because he had faced personal difficulties in the run-up to the tour. In March his wife, Nancy, had suffered a miscarriage at 20 weeks, having been given the drug Thalidomide for morning sickness. She insisted that her husband should play against Scotland the next weekend. “We won and I was selected for the Lions . . . Nancy told me, ‘You must go on the tour.’ So I went. It did us good. We eventually agreed that the fair time apart gave us time to regroup.” They later had a daughter, Judy, who is a physiotherapist involved in sports medicine, and a son, Simon, who is an electronics engineer.

William Philip Cathcart Davies was born in Abberley, Worcestershire, the youngest of three brothers. He went to Denstone College, Staffordshire, where he enjoyed rugby, football and athletics, and then studied biology at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. He was a member of the sprint relay team against Oxford, but missed out on a rugby blue.

He did his National Service with the RAF before joining Christ’s Hospital School in West Sussex, where he taught chemistry and biology and met Nancy, who was a nurse. She predeceased him. He played rugby for Cheltenham, but Harlequins soon recognised his talent. At 13st 6lb and 6ft, he was relatively big for a centre at that time. He won his first cap in a 26-8 victory over Scotland in 1953 and went on to win 10 more. He became headmaster of Smallwood Manor, the preparatory school to Denstone, in his twenties, which had an impact on his ability to play first-class rugby. He later became head of Cheltenham College junior school. He played rugby until he was nearly 50 and was a mainstay of the Cheltenham club for many years, including 15 as president.

Davies could often be found behind the bar serving visitors, who had no idea about his position at the club nor his distinguished playing past. His daughter recalled: “He was a very humble man. He told us of one job interview when the chairman of the panel, not too well briefed, asked him if he played any sport. ‘Just a bit,’ Dad replied.”

Phil Davies, rugby player, was born on August 6, 1928. He died on January 25, 2018, aged 89