As featured in this month’s edition of our We Are Widnes magazine, we sit down with Widnes Vikings back-rower Olly Davies to talk about his journey in rugby so far.
When the Vikings come out for training in the evening, the first, and loudest, voice you will hear is that of 26-year-old Olly Davies. Olly has settled in quickly at Widnes, starting almost every game so far this season. It could have been very different, had he not persevered with the sport, but hard work and determination saw the St. Helens-born lad turn into a consistent performing second-rower for Widnes.
Olly got into the sport at five years old. He only started rugby league when his brother broke his leg playing football so his mum took him to rugby instead, where he had to train above his age but ended up making friends for life. “I played and trained for a year above my age because you can’t play games until you’re six.
“That group of mates, from when I was five, we’re still close mates now. I stayed with them and played a year above my age because we were mates. I could have stayed behind and played with my own age, but I chose not to. I stuck with them until I was about under-14s.”
It was then that St Helens spotted Olly playing for Orrell St James, and led to him signing up to join their youth system. “They recommended I drop down to my own age group. I stayed at Orrell, and went through the usual route of academy with service area, schoolboys, scholarship and then signed academy terms with Saints at sixteen. I went through to reserves, firsts, the whole pathway at Saints. I played representatives for Lancashire, England, and went on to make my Super League debut at Saints.”
That debut came under disappointing circumstances, however. “I was 18th man for the first team to face Catalans away and then I went to captain’s run one morning, and one of the lads’ wives was due to give birth. Kieron Cunningham, the coach at the time, told me, ‘If his wife doesn’t give birth, you’ll be playing tomorrow’. I trained with the first team, off the bench, and when I got to the ground in the morning to set off on the plane, he didn’t turn up. I knew his wife hadn’t given birth, and I was playing.
“I got there, warmed up, I was on the bench for my debut. I didn’t get put on. I just thought, keep on doing the right thing, I was still warming up in the 79th minute.
“I had to then wait a couple of months to actually get my debut. I played hooker, replacing James Roby! I played against Wakefield in the final game of the regular season and we won. I’d never played hooker in my life! Foz (Matty Fozard) had gone out on loan, and I’d thrown myself in at hooker at training because we didn’t have one, and I ended up getting played at hooker! It’s the one and only game I’ve played there. I played hooker, second row and loose forward that game!”
Olly left St Helens at the end of the 2016 season, with his spell not ending as he had hoped. “I didn’t leave Saints in the best of scenarios. I left with no answers to the questions I had, and I’ve still got questions now. It took me a long time to get over that – just because I’d so heavily invested myself that’s where I wanted to be.
“I was a Saints fan as a kid, went through the whole pathway with them, captained the reserve side, played grand finals with them, represented England for Saints, sometimes as the only representative from Saints. I remember going back to my dad at the time, and said, ‘It’s done and dusted dad it’s not going to happen.’
“I was in that bracket where I didn’t know what to do other than rugby. It took me a long time to get over that. I agreed to sign at a few Championship clubs but it was dependant on how their season went during the year. I’d agreed to go out on loan during the super eights to get some game time but it never actually happened for whatever reason.”
Olly eventually joined Swinton Lions for the 2017 season, but found his spell in Manchester difficult on a personal level. “I really struggled. I didn’t do anything other than play rugby part time. I’d train myself away from rugby, and then getting used to training during the nights when you’re used to getting training done in the daytime and then cramming everything into the session between eight and nine o’clock, it was tough.
“I struggled that year. I got used to it in the end, but I did struggle. I had good lads around me but the mentality was a lot different. It wasn’t as dedicated when I felt like I was. Luckily, I was thrown a lifeline when I was pretty much ready to pack it in.”
A move to Sheffield Eagles encouraged Olly to continue with the sport. “I spoke to Mark Aston at Sheffield and he was interested in me and came over to meet me. I signed over there and he offered me a job to work alongside Foz in the schools. It meant moving away, so I grew up a lot in that sense. It was the best thing I’ve done personally, moving away from home, just to grow up. That helped me on the pitch, mentality wise as well, knowing that I had to look after myself on the pitch in different ways.
“My first year there was a transition. I’d gone from full-time Super League player to part-time Championship player to living away from home, which was another transition of standing on my own two feet. I absolutely loved the social side of it, growing up myself, but it was definitely a transition year in terms of my rugby – I struggled from that side of things.”
This difficult year led to more doubts in Olly’s mind whether to continue with the sport. “Rugby-wise it was a poor year, I realised again then, ‘is rugby going to be as involved in my life as I thought it was going to be, how I’d planned it to be as a kid?’. Again, I was questioning whether I should sack it off, go home, get a different job and go down a different career path, that crossed my mind a couple of times. I spoke to my dad, and said I’d give it one more go.”
After persevering through some tough times, it was 2019 when Olly finally started to enjoy his rugby again – ironically the year of that 1895 Cup final. “I had a fantastic pre-season before the 2019 year. It set me up for a really strong 2019, which kind of kicked me on really. I felt like I’d finally settled in. It took me two years, but I’d finally settled in and I knew I was more than capable of playing this standard week in week out. I was working in the schools in the daytime with Foz, and then coming home and going to training, only getting home at 9pm. Everyone who does that in the Championship will tell you it’s tough, everyone knows it’s tough, but you just get on with it. That’s the mentality you’ve got to have.
“The 1895 Cup win was probably the happiest I’ve been during rugby, waking up the next day with a medal round me. I’d never actually won anything in rugby, I thought I was always going to be a nearly man. I nearly made it full time, nearly did it in Super League. When I was younger, at amateur level, we never won anything. We always enjoyed being there, but never won anything. I’d been to grand finals in my academy days, but we hadn’t won, so to get that one over the line was quite a relief. It kind of built up for something that I’ve worked from five years old to look back on. My Super League debut, I didn’t actually get on, so winning that 1895 Cup was something to look back on and say, I was actually successful.
“It put all that doubt out of my mind to quit rugby. I’d invested almost 20 years not to win anything. I’d seen everyone around me win things and I only wanted something to look back on and say, yeah I won that. I’ve still got the shirt, it’s framed in my house with the medal and a couple of photos. My mindset changed after that. I took a lot of pressure off myself. I took a lot of pressure off winning things, and I could focus on enjoying my time.”
Olly is certainly enjoying his time at Widnes so far. “I come to training every day with a smile on my face, I’m laughing and joking, you can hear me from a mile off, because I’m here to enjoy myself now. I’m not here to be doubting myself, I know what I’m capable of.
“I know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m 26, I should be coming to the prime of my career now, but I want to enjoy it. I don’t want to get to the age of 30 and be battered and bruised and miserable, I want to be enjoying my time playing and training, because at some point, I’m going to say, I’ve had enough of putting myself through this, and that’s when I sit down with a cup of tea and say it was all worth it.”
Olly realised in 2021 that it was time to move back near his family and jumped at the opportunity to join the Vikings. “I felt my time at Sheffield had run its course. I had a really successful year that year personally, and I kind of played that year to make sure I had an interest from another club for the next year. I got wind of Widnes being interested and asked my agent to sort that out straight away.
“Widnes is a massive club, I was quite proud to think I’d be part of that, while being able to do what I wanted to do away from rugby as well. I’d finally be going to the next stage of my life, getting my own place. It was nice at first moving home and having my mum cook my tea, but now it takes it toll! When you’ve had a taste of your own space, you want it back! It was time to take my next step and be around my people who I had grown up with.
The last few months have brought some difficult results after an unbeaten start to the season, but Olly says it’s important to keep in the right mindset. “At the moment, we’re going through a tough spell, but we’ve got to stay positive and enthusiastic, enjoy what we’re doing. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do. We can only get through this tough spell by being positive, enjoying yourself. Smiles on faces can be infectious. That’s why I’m always the loudest in training!
“I’ve absolutely loved it since I first turned up. I knew a lot of the lads already when I first turned up, I’ve played alongside or against them at different stages of my career. They’re a cracking bunch of lads and I really enjoy it.
“It didn’t take me long to settle in at all. I wanted to play in a competitive team that’s going places, and this team is going places. I’ve just got to make sure I do everything I possibly can. The lads here have all got that same mindset.”
Seeing the quality in the Widnes squad was also a reason which persuaded Olly to come and play at the Vikings. “Another thing for me is seeing people I’ve always wanted to play with, like Smeegs (Matty Smith). I just missed Smeegs at Saints, he joined when I left, but now I play alongside him on the right side and really enjoy it. I think it’s a bit of a privilege to be playing with a player of that calibre. I’ve played with some good halfbacks over the years and they have always come back with something different. Whenever Smeegs speaks, you listen. I really enjoy playing alongside him.
“I look forward to coming to training. Some places I’ve played, it’s been a dread. I don’t think I ever will dread coming here, I really enjoy it.
“As a good back rower, you’ve got to be consistent and reliable. I know I’m not a world beater, I’m never going to win games on my own, but I think a good back rower can go unnoticed at times. They do the unselfish things, and I pride myself on doing the horrible things I don’t really want to do, a lot of the tackling and carries that aren’t the pretty carries, and I enjoy that.
“My dad’s always said, it’s about making sure you’re consistent. Every week it’s about making sure you were an eight or nine out of ten, never a four. I had times where I wasn’t, but that’s when you find you’ll be in and out of the team. If you can consistently do the unselfish things that you only actually miss when you take that person out of the team, that’s when you know it’s that player – I like to think I’m that player. If you tell me to run through a brick wall, I’ll run through a brick wall, I like doing that. If Matty Smith, Danny Craven, Joey Lyons tell me to do anything, I’ll do it, that’s my role and that’s what I pride myself on.”
Olly had seen first hand the power of the Widnes fans in influencing a game before joining this year. “My first encounter with Widnes fans was at Wembley, but I remember playing Widnes on a Friday night when they won about 30 points to six at the DCBL Stadium. I was stood behind the sticks, and in the West Stand, we only had about 20 fans who came on a Friday night. I turned round and knew it wasn’t the Sheffield fans making that noise. When you’re stood behind the sticks and you hear the fans going mad, you get a bit of a spine-tingling moment, when you’re struggling to hear each other. That’s what we had.
“In my first game against Batley, Danny Craven’s testimonial, the fans were fantastic – so loud and passionate. They’re rugby through and through. Widnes is a rugby town – if you’re from Widnes, you know Widnes Vikings and you’re a fan – they’re your team and you can tell. Going forward, all we can ask for is you keep turning up and stick by us. We’re a tight knit group and they’re part of the group – we’re not just a team and fans, we’re all one big group.”
Olly recognises the role of the Widnes fans in turning around the team’s form. “It’s all going to take one big effort. In particular, when we played Halifax away, such a tight game, it was a horrendous day with the weather, but they had their own stand and they got us through it. When we got that drop goal, I just stood in front of the fans and soaked it all in. These are the times, we think in rugby, I love this game, I hope it never ends.”
After an honest chat about his career so far, Olly concludes with a message for the fans. “Like I said, just stick by us, I know it’s gone tough for the past few weeks, but the good times will come back, sooner rather than later.”