Mike Davis, who has died aged 80, will always be associated with one of English rugby union’s most celebrated triumphs. In his first Five Nations campaign as England’s head coach, the schoolteacher from Sherborne helped steer the national team to the 1980 grand slam under the captaincy of Bill Beaumont, the first red rose clean sweep since the late 1950s.
It was a spectacular contrast to the years of underachievement that had preceded Davis’s arrival, with Wales and France having dominated for much of the 70s. England had some fine individual players such as Beaumont, Fran Cotton, Peter Wheeler, Tony Neary, Clive Woodward and Mike Slemen, but selection had been notoriously inconsistent and the team had seldom gelled.
All that changed when Davis took over, having previously coached the successful England Schools XV. He had no senior-level coaching experience but had won 16 caps for England at lock forward between 1963 and 1970. Davis and his senior players were collectively frustrated – “the truth is it haunted us” – that England had not won a grand slam since 1957.
Before Davis took over in the autumn of 1979, England had suffered a heavy 27-3 defeat against Wales in the Five Nations championship in Cardiff, and they also lost 10-9 to the All Blacks in Davis’s first match in charge. Following the New Zealand game, though, Beaumont pulled Davis aside and told him he had a good feeling about the forthcoming Five Nations season. Pick the right team, the players reckoned, and they would have a decent chance against anyone.
Happily Davis had a shrewd eye for playing talent, and his elevation of the Gloucester prop Phil Blakeway was a particular masterstroke. Davis believed a strong “spine” was key to building a consistent winning team, and his honesty and enthusiasm swiftly endeared him to the squad.
Another canny move saw England abandon their familiar routine of gathering on Sundays, when they were still sore from their club fixtures, in favour of training more intensively on Monday nights at Stourbridge RFC in the West Midlands, with members of the public free to attend. There were several other innovations, not least when Davis walked into a meeting carrying an odd-looking contraption. It was the first time the national squad had ever seen an overhead projector.
The senior players were also consulted more often, and soon grew accustomed to Davis’s enthusiastic use of words such as “whoosh” rather than “ruck” to describe exactly how he wanted his forwards to attack contact situations.
Ireland were well beaten (24-9) in the first game of the 1980 championship, followed by a 17-13 victory over France in Paris. Next up was a 9-8 win over Wales at Twickenham, memorable for the sending-off of the Wales flanker Paul Ringer after 15 minutes for an alleged high and late challenge on John Horton. Dusty Hare kicked the late winning penalty, setting up a grand slam occasion against Scotland at Murrayfield.
Davis was smart enough to realise that his senior players needed no extra motivation, and deliberately made himself scarce as kick-off approached, happy to leave the stage to others. England duly won 30-18 to clinch their long-awaited slam, but it was to prove the high-water mark of the team’s fortunes for the next decade. Several senior players subsequently retired and, after failing to win the Five Nations in 1981 and 1982, they collected the wooden spoon in 1983, prompting Davis to joke that “I’ve turned wine into water”. He stepped aside shortly afterwards to concentrate on his teaching career. Of his 20 Tests in charge, England won 10 and drew three.
Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, to Olive (nee Thompson), who had a hairdressing salon and also worked on film sets, and Alec Davis, a semi-professional music hall singer and movie stunt man, Davis was educated at Torquay boys’ grammar school before training to be a teacher at St Luke’s College in Exeter. He was still at St Luke’s when chosen for his first cap against Wales in 1963, playing the game in cheap football boots that he had dyed black because proper rugby footwear was too expensive. In the same year he toured with England to New Zealand, dislocating a shoulder in the second Test in Christchurch but bravely playing on and continuing to win line-out ball with his one good arm.
Subsequently Davis trained as an instructor officer in the Royal Navy, spending time at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth in Devon and 18 months at HMS Raleigh at Torpoint in Cornwall. He turned out for Devonport Services and Combined Services, also representing Devon and then Staffordshire, whom he captained to victory in the county championship in 1970.
Like his father, Davis was renowned for his singing ability, with Elvis Presley among his specialities, and was once described in the Twickenham programme as “almost certainly the best pop singer ever to play rugby football for England. Very good on Bye Bye Blackbird.”
Davis also excelled at basketball and water polo, and combined playing for Harlequins RFC with teaching jobs at Haileybury in Hertfordshire and St Paul’s in London.
He met Jenny Hull, a school nurse, at Haileybury in 1967, and they married in 1969. In 1974 they moved to Sherborne in Dorset, where he became a maths and PE teacher at Sherborne school and helped guide the school’s first XV to four consecutive unbeaten seasons from 1975 to 1978.
His purple England tracksuit was the solitary clue to his other life. Even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he continued to coach at Sherborne RFC, and his kind hearted, encouraging nature never left him.
He is survived by Jenny, and their daughter, Jo, and twin sons, Simon and Peter.
• Alec Michael Davis, rugby union player and coach, born 23 January 1942; died 10 May 2022