Meet Alex Davis - the poetry-loving rugby star inspiring England Sevens' new era

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Alex Davis - EDDIE MULHOLLAND
Alex Davis - EDDIE MULHOLLAND

Sevens likes to think it delivers a different type of rugby player, and time spent in the company of Alex Davis proves it has a point.

The new England Sevens captain may share a white shirt and armband with his XVs equivalent, Owen Farrell, but the comparisons end there. While Farrell's granite demeanour and unflinching attitude are his defining features, Davis reads poetry, quotes CS Lewis and does not think twice about showing his vulnerable side to his team-mates.

Part of the reason the Rugby Football Union's decision to scrap the old men's and women's sevens programmes in August 2020 caused so much despair was that it shredded the “culture of love” cultivated by former head of sevens Simon Amor and former England and GB captain Tom Mitchell. Davis was a beneficiary of this readiness to turn traditional rugby views of masculinity on its head, as it helped him through many difficult personal battles and to be his own man.

Mitchell has left English rugby now, departing to play for the LA Giltinis in Major League Rugby, but in Davis he has an ideal replacement. The 29-year-old is keen to use his own story to help break down the barriers in this much changed environment, and there is plenty to tell: from the loss of his father to blood cancer in late 2015, to missing out on the 2016 Olympics after dislocating his ankle in the gym days before the Games were due to start and his subsequent bout of depression.

After almost quitting the sport following a string of shoulder injuries, Davis now stands charged with leading Sevens 2.0. The new era began last weekend in Malaga, where England surpassed expectations by finishing third in their first outing since March 2020, and are in action again on Friday and this weekend in Seville.

“I am really grateful that I can show my full colours to these guys, be vulnerable, be open with them and hopefully they will be comfortable enough to allow them to do the same if they are also struggling with something,” says Davis.

 There will be four players. The new captain Alex Davis plus three young players PIC: Will Trenholm, Hayden Hyde, Joe Browning and Alex Davis. - EDDIE MULHOLLAND
There will be four players. The new captain Alex Davis plus three young players PIC: Will Trenholm, Hayden Hyde, Joe Browning and Alex Davis. - EDDIE MULHOLLAND

“It was a bit daunting because a large contingent of that strong England sevens programme I was part of really knew my story but I spoke to one of the new lads and he was asking me about my motivation. I told him about my dad and six months later what happened in Rio a couple and watching the team win a silver medal. So, to have him hear that from me as the captain – I think it created a deeper connection between the two of us.

“People who I have spoken to have said ‘Just be yourself’, obviously that is why I was selected to be captain because [New England head coach] Tony Roques say something in my character and I am not going to change.”

Davis and Tom Bowen are the only two survivors from the cohort of nine that represented Team GB in Tokyo, coming fourth, but the programme looks very different now. There are now agreements coming on stream from Premierships sides such as Leicester and Harlequins to release young players who could benefit from the competitive experience sevens allows.

Davis coped with the agony of missing out on an Olympic medal in his own unique way. Although he admits to not being the most conscientious reader, he speaks about taking solace from an anthology of verse, The Poetry Pharmacy, when he was unable to train properly during the first lockdown. He also took to gardening, helping elderly neighbours.

As he looks forward to a key year in Sevens with a home Commonwealth Games in Birmingham before the World Cup in September, he quotes CS Lewis to explain how he would like to instil humility in the squad. “‘True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less,'" Davis says.

He also finds inspiration from podcasts, particularly and while those related to sport don’t come as a surprise, perhaps his enthusiasm for broadcaster Fearn Cotton’s Happy Place – where she interviews a variety of guests on their life journeys - does. The Bristolian cheekily admits he would love to be a guest “it would be great if I could make that happen!”

The conversation takes a more poignant turn when asked how his family reacted to him being bestowed with the captaincy. “My mum’s face lit up with pride, happiness and a lot of emotion. I don’t think any of us would have considered I would be in this position,” he says.

“I rang my maternal grandparents to tell them who are proud Glaswegians but they said, ‘your dad would be so proud of you’. I get very emotional thinking about that.” His voice breaks. “The ultimate dream was for dad to see me play for England but to captain England is a whole other level to be honest… I would have absolutely loved to have been able to tell him.”

If Fearn Cotton needs another guest, Davis might well be the man. In the mean time, he has enough to do leading England's new Sevens generation.

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