Take a drive up the Western Valley in Gwent, from Newport in the south to the airy Brecon Beacons in the north, and you encounter a landscape beautiful in its bleakness and teeming in hidden history. This was where the industrial revolution trampled its heavy hobnailed boot - the Rape of the Fair Country, as Alexander Cordell called it in the title of his seminal novel of 19th-century ironworkers. Where rugby and the working Welshman became one; where men like Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, were born and raised and sent into the world.
Ruddock grew up in Blaina near the head of the Western Valley, at a time when coal was king but dying on the throne inherited from iron and tinplate. His home village and its neighbour, Nantyglo, were already twilight communities by the 1930s, when coal exports plummeted during the depression, and barely flickering when it came to his formative years of the Sixties and Seventies.
But these were also the days of celebrating Welsh Grand Slams and nights spent scampering the narrow pavements of the Abertillery Road, as the sky above the west side of the valley glowed red from the furnaces of the steelworks at Ebbw Vale.
"The area was dominated by the pits and the slag heaps," said Ruddock. "As a kid that's where we played, up on the coal tips. And I suppose in many ways, that's all it was. But there was a great sense of community, and of hard work, and obviously the focal point of the village was the rugby club. With the strength of the mining and its workforce, every valley town had a tough mob playing for them."
It was that way from the start. Rugby was enthusiastically embraced by the men, many of them interlopers from Llanelli in the west or Gloucestershire and Somerset in the east, who came to forge the iron, dig the coal, lay the railways and build the docks.
There's a rugby club in Nantyglo and one in Blaina too, about a mile apart 1,000 feet up the valley. Between them they have turned out a remarkable array of talent. There was David Watkins, the Wales fly-half and famous rugby league convert; David Nash, the first coach to the Wales team, in 1968; Bob Norster, arguably Wales's last great line-out forward, who went to Cardiff in the same way that Ruddock, a quality back-rower, moved from Blaina to Swansea. Phil Kingsley Jones, a captain of Blaina before he emigrated to New Zealand, coached Tonga and managed Jonah Lomu (whose All Black jersey hangs in the Nantyglo clubhouse). Jones's son, Kingsley, skippered Wales in 1998 and now coaches in the Zurich Premiership at Sale.
Malcolm Dally, a Nantyglo-Blaina town councillor of 40 years' standing, used to teach Ruddock, and identifies a trait shared with Nash that sets them apart. "They've never lost the common touch," Dally said. "Mike will always be one of the boys, but the players respect him. How do we feel when they move away and are successful? A bit of envy at first, yes, but essentially we're very proud of them."
Pride and a love of rugby, but what else? How about the quintessence of smiling in adversity. Ruddock was very close to winning a Wales cap in his mid-20s when, working as an electricity lineman on the Abertillery Road, he fell from a ladder, fractured his skull and shattered the balance mechanism in his ear. "As well as being born on that road, I almost got killed on it," he said, secure in the knowledge that the accident led him into coaching when he helped out with the Blaina forwards.
A couple of months ago, Ruddock attended the funeral in Nantyglo of a friend's father, Joe Lewis. "As the coffin was coming out, with the family all behind, obviously very saddened by their loss, everything was quiet. And this guy turned round to me, whacked me in the arm and said, 'Oi, I wouldn't pick that Stephen Jones at fly-half, and I wouldn't pick Gareth Thomas at full-back either'."
Nantyglo, whose pitch drains nicely on a bed of secondhand cinders, have the bragging rights this season, with 18 wins out of 18. But Blaina had their time. Ruddock was just into his teens in February 1973 when mighty Cardiff - Gareth Edwards et al - came to Central Park for a Welsh Cup quarter-final. Four-and-a-half-thousand spectators heaved and swayed around the roped-off pitch, and Ruddock, selling programmes with his best mate, Chris Adams, wasn't going to miss a minute of it.
"We left the programmes and clambered on to a banking of soil which enabled us to get on to the roof of the stand. Health and safety wouldn't like it now. The Blaina team, when there was no TV every weekend, were as much my heroes as Gareth Edwards. Blaina once lost by a point to Ebbw Vale, but I still remember our front row putting theirs up in the air."
Then there came the great challenge to rugby's survival in the valleys - the disappearance in tandem of the heavy industries and the grammar schools. Ruddock was among the first intake at Nantyglo Comprehensive, whose blazer badge of interlocking squares symbolised the coming-together of schools such as Glanyrafon Secondary Modern, attended by Watkins. More recently, the teachers went on strike and became reluctant to work after hours.
"It all assisted in diminishing the numbers playing the game," said Ruddock. "I came back to Wales in 2000 from coaching in Ireland and was quite shocked at how far Blaina and the valley teams had slipped. The club at Abertillery, the biggest town in Gwent after Newport, closed down, and to someone like me that's unbelievable."
Strange to realise, then, that with a Grand Slam looming, this son of the valleys - home to miners and rioting Chart-ists, evangelists and ruthless capitalists - could appear now as a rugby revivalist. Last autumn Ruddock was made a freeman of Nantyglo and Blaina (only the second to have the honour). His mother and two sisters live in Blaina; his niece, Louise, runs the smart Bar 98 in the high street, and it will be packed this afternoon for the coverage from Murrayfield.
"The Wales squad did a fundraiser for the Toby Cockbain Foundation the other evening," said Ruddock. "It was freezing cold but literally hundreds of kids turned out to see the players. The young people now have to go into different careers and industries, but I think the valley towns will emerge again. There's no doubt we can recreate any enthusiasm that may have been lost." The same enthusiasm Ruddock had when he clambered high on a hillside in the cradle of the game.Reuse content