Ruddock's prescription revitalises the Whites

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The Independent Online
What it is to be coach of Wales was rudely, and crudely, brought home to Alex Evans after his Cardiff side had forfeited the chance of the double by losing 16-9 after extra time to Swansea at Llanelli in the semi-final of the Swalec Cup.

As Evans, as mild and modest an Australian as you could wish to meet, was dispensing a few post-match words of wisdom a loud-mouthed punter materialised at the end of the corridor and yelled in his direction: "What a load of crap! Welsh rugby selector? Rubbish!"

This goes to show on the one hand that the security at Stradey Park, which had done its best to keep the blameless press away from Evans, had failed in a more important respect. Cardiff's coaching organiser shrugged off the interruption and was probably glad when he read about Graham Taylor that the bum - whether drunken or otherwise - did not expectorate in his face.

On the other hand, and more seriously if it is the well-being of Welsh rugby that you have in mind, these embarrassing few moments demonstrated that to be coach of Wales is to court unpopularity as surely as every single one of his predecessors of the past 15 years have done.

Mind you, Evans is - one might say has put himself - in a singularly vulnerable position as a result of the selection of Wales's World Cup squad, since 11 of the 26 are Cardiffians, and when there is a result such as that of this Stradey semi-final any old corridor complainant has an easy target.

The game was scarcely up when Llanelli officials, reluctantly kept at home when they wanted to be at the other semi-final, were making their point. "If that's the future of Welsh rugby, God help us," one said - which is about as superficial a response to one match as to suggest that the Scarlets warranted more than the four they have going to the World Cup and really mean it.

Cardiff have so many that seven of Saturday's pack are South Africa-bound and the eighth, prop Lyndon Mustoe, is on stand-by. Swansea, like Llanelli, have four and in a perverse way this may explain their cup victory, the clichd response to disappointment of having more to prove than their opponents, who in any case already had the league as good as won.

"They had already achieved; they were champions, so perhaps the hunger was ours," Anthony Clement, the Swansea captain, said. And certainly it was the voracious way his All Whites tore into Cardiff at the outset of extra time that tilted the match, a rare but glorious example of continuous rugby culminating in the decisive try by Roddy Boobyer that put them in the final against Pontypridd on 6 May.

Aled Williams converted to give Swansea their ultimate advantage and the remaining 18 fluctuating minutes provided a thrillingly creative contrast to the drabness and sterility of the first 80. The comparison with the climactic English encounter of Leicester and Bath seven days earlier, a match of similar status, was distinctly unflattering to the Welsh.

Indeed if Welsh rugby itself, let alone the Welsh squad who are preparing for the World Cup, were to be judged on what had gone before Boobyer's try the unanimous verdict would have been guilty. Williams began with two penalties for Swansea. Adrian Davies continued with two for Cardiff followed by a drop goal and lastly Williams's third penalty.

On a filthy afternoon which did nothing for the theory of summer rugby there was no try chance worth the name until Boobyer's and little worthwhile attacking rugby, a felony compounded by the persistent aversion of the referee to allow even the most manifest advantage, just for a second or two to see what happened.

In such inimical conditions the players needed greater sympathy than David Davies offered but they had other excuses, notably the overwhelming demands on squad members of switching to and fro between their club and national commitments at the bitter end of a season that has drained many of them emotionally as well as physically.

Yesterday the Cardiff 11 and the Swansea four were back in Wales mode, training yet again with South Africa rather than Swalec in mind. You could say the same of Alex Evans and Mike Ruddock, his Swansea counterpart and Wales assistant, since they too have been switching from club to country and back again on a daily basis in the 25 days since their appointment.

On this occasion, the cup holders dismissed by last season's league champions, the achievement was the apprentice's rather than the sorcerer's. Ruddock has picked his players up from the humiliation of their 78-7 defeat by the Springboks in November by developing their fitness to such a level that it is equivalent to South African provincial standard: a development that had a direct bearing on their semi-final victory.

"After South Africa, we said we matched them for 40 minutes but obviously there was a dichotomy in fitness levels," Ruddock said. "What we did was turn the negative of a disastrous defeat into a positive. We were pitching our fitness levels to the arena of Welsh rugby whereas we had to pitch it a lot higher.

"When we were 9-6 down playing into the wind, Cardiff would normally then have continued the wearing-down process and started to run in tries, but because of our excellent fitness level they were never able to wear us down and the longer it went on the stronger we became."

Ruddock's satisfaction is justifiably unbounded. Under his guidance the rebirth of the Whites has been a triumph not only of astute planning but of hope over experience and, having collected the Five Nations wooden spoon, his other team - Wales - will soon need more of the same in the World Cup.

Cardiff: Penalties Davies 2; Drop goal Davies. Swansea: Try Boobyer; Conversion Williams; Penalties Williams 3.

Cardiff: C John; S Ford, M Hall (capt), G John, S Hill; A Davies, A Moore; M Griffiths, J Humphreys, L Mustoe, S Roy, D Jones, H Taylor, E Lewis, M Bennett.

Swansea: A Clement (capt); A Harris, R Boobyer, D Weatherley, Simon Davies; A Williams, R Jones; C Loader, G Jenkins, K Colclough, P Arnold, A Moore, A Reynolds, S Davies, R Appleyard.

Referee: D Davies (Llanbradach).