Alan Watkins On Rugby: Ruddock searching for consolation prizes in Welsh gloom

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Switching on the sports part of Sky News the other evening, I saw the estimable Jeremy Thompson giving his opinion that the Wales rugby team were in danger of being underestimated and that they might yet surprise us all. Mr Thompson is, I should perhaps add, a fully paid-up member of the Rugby Writers' Club and, accordingly, takes a certain interest in these matters.

Well, I wish I could share his optimism. But with every week that passes there seems to be some additional cause for gloom.

Last Sunday, admittedly, no one expected a Welsh region to qualify for the last stages of the Heineken European Cup. However, the inevitability of the blow - and the fact that it had fallen in more or less the same way over past seasons - did not make it any easier to bear.

Certainly, Llanelli gave Toulouse a good game at Stradey Park, from which Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, can draw several consolations. Even so, I am not, I think, alone in becoming a little tired of hearing that club being praised for their sterling efforts after failing, once again, to reach the last stages of the competition.

I am reminded of the occasion when Sir Geoffrey Howe (who, incidentally, comes from Aberavon) was compelled to enter a boxing competition during his national service in the Army, and was awarded first prize for being the best loser.

As I say, there is nothing new about the Welsh regions' dismal performance in Europe: it happens every year, without fail. What would be nice would be to know that someone was trying to remedy it, instead of making excuses - such as that the English and French clubs and the Irish provinces have more money at their disposal - and attempting to blame somebody else.

Last season, however, Wales triumphed despite their lack of success in the Heineken competition. Since then there have been numerous injuries to players. Here it is perfectly fair to blame other people, notably the Lions management in New Zealand last summer, and the administrators of the game in the northern hemisphere throughout the year. And, naturally, ordinary bad luck played its part as well.

Only one injury can Ruddock afford to discount: Ryan Jones' trouble. That is simply because Jones was a bonus, virtually disregarded until he distinguished himself with the Lions. Ruddock still has a serviceable back row available in Michael Owen, Martyn Williams and Colin Charvis, who seems to have made a full recovery from his unhappy experiences with Graham Henry's Lions in Australia in 2001.

A more recent Lions casualty is Brett Cockbain in the second row. This is more serious, because there is no obvious lock to partner Robert Sidoli in his place, which is, when you come to think about it, an astonishing commentary on the present state of Welsh rugby. It has been suggested that Ruddock might restore Owen to the second row, but I hope he does not follow that course. It was, after all, the pit from which Ruddock rescued him several seasons ago. Since then he has prospered greatly in his new position. Ruddock could avail himself of a similar solution by transferring Jonathan Thomas into the second row, where he has played in the past. No one, however, could pretend that this answer would be ideal.

Oddly enough, I am less worried by the absence of Chris Horsman at tight head, not because I undervalue him but because he is, like Ryan Jones, a recent bonus. Ruddock already has a specialist loose head in Duncan Jones, a tight head in Adam Jones, and the invaluable and now recovered Gethin Jenkins, who is ambidextrous (though the reality is that very few props are equally comfortable on either side of the scrum).

The England coach Andy Robinson has, by contrast, the "problem'' - if it is a problem - of whether to restore Lawrence Dallaglio to the back row. He has the luxury of having to make a decision about whether to play Josh Lewsey at centre, at full-back or on the wing. Ruddock, on the other hand, does not have any centres, except Matthew Watkins, who had a good game against Toulouse. He has to find somebody else to go inside him. I would settle for Ceri Sweeney.

The other two consolation prizes come from Llanelli also: Mark Jones, who has recovered from two knee injuries, and Barry Davies, who would fit in very well if Gareth Thomas turned out to be injured, too, at Twickenham. Lucky Robinson and unlucky Ruddock!