Chris Hewett: Ruddock undone by players' discontent

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The Independent Online

He arrived unexpectedly, and he leaves in precisely the same fashion. Mike Ruddock did not ask to succeed Steve Hansen as head coach of Wales in 2004, even though he had been groomed for high office ever since he showed a natural aptitude for back-room work with the common-or-garden likes of Blaina, Tredegar and Bective Rangers. Indeed, he did not even send in an application form. Yet the Welsh Rugby Union hierarchy chose him out of the blue, ahead of the people's favourite, Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli. And for one glorious season, it seemed they were right and everyone else was wrong.

Twenty international matches along the road, the Red Dragonhood are back in their familiar state of flux. They know who will be coaching them for the remaining three matches of the current Six Nations Championship, which they resume with a game against Ireland in Dublin on Sunday week: Scott Johnson, the feel-good Australian with the can-do spirit and the swanky line in humourous one-liners. What they do not know is how long he will be with them. The Welsh players love him to bits - a whole lot more than they appeared to love Ruddock. But Johnson has already signalled that if the Wallabies come asking for his services, he will be on the first flight to Sydney.

Ruddock was not in the easiest of positions when the WRU identified him as their preferred choice as top dog, for Jenkins was the candidate with the public support. To the union obsessive in the street, he was a stone-cold certainty - exactly the kind of knowledgeable romantic capable of harnessing the best of the Welsh rugby spirit, of summoning the ghosts of Gareth and Barry and JPR. By comparison, Ruddock seemed a dry establishment sort. It was not a popular appointment.

That changed the moment Gavin Henson kicked a long-range goal to beat England at the Millennium Stadium this time last year. If truth be told, Hansen had already sent the Welsh graph in a northerly direction by inspiring a series of boldly inventive performances, beginning with those against New Zealand and England in the 2003 World Cup. But it was Ruddock who presided over the watershed victory, and from there, Wales found themselves in onwards-and-upwards mode.

"We're not winning our games just because the coach is a Welshman," Ruddock remarked at the time, responding to the notion that suggestion that his predecessors, Hansen and his fellow New Zealander Graham Henry, might not have been sympathetic to the unique dynamics of the game in the lands to the west of the Severn Bridge. "We're winning because we're doing the one per cents that little bit better than we were." But he quickly added: "Actually, I do think that real Welshness - an appreciation of the history of the sport here, of the people and their rugby heritage - might be among those one per cents." Few Welshmen would have argued with that assertion when Wales won their Grand Slam last year. Yet there were rumblings beneath the surface even then, hints, whispers and rumours that all was not sweetness and light between Ruddock and his players.

Periodically, there were suggestions that the coach had "lost the dressing-room". The coach's relationship with the captain, Gareth Thomas, injured for much of the golden run, was far from harmonious, and there was constant talk of senior players wanting Johnson to play a bigger role. Indeed, some players took the view that Johnson did most of the constructive work anyway.

Ruddock was certainly in sharp disagreement with a number of the Test squad as recently as last week. Before Sunday's match with Scotland in Cardiff, the second of this season's Six Nations fixtures, the Welsh players refused to attend a scheduled press gathering because they objected to the presence of a BBC journalist, Graham Thomas, who had co-operated in the writing of a controversial whistle-blower's book by the now suspended Henson. Ruddock asked his players to fulfil their obligations, and, according to eye- witnesses, was bluntly told to go forth and multiply.

Wales won two-thirds of their fixtures under Ruddock, including a first victory over Australia in 18 years. As Welsh coaching records go, it was far from the worst. Sadly, his tenure was soured by problems with high-profile players - principally Henson, whose ill-advised publication served to poison the well from which Welsh rugby draws its sustenance. As both Ruddock's predecessors, Hansen and Henry, repeatedly decreed, the pressures attached to the game in the Principality are greater than those of any other union nation in the world, including their native New Zealand. Ultimately, they were too great for Ruddock.