John Dawes: 'It seems hereditary. At some stage we always shoot ourselves in the foot'

Brian Viner Interviews: The last man to coach Wales to a Grand Slam before Mike Ruddock is no stranger to player power, having dabbled in it when he was Barbarians captain in 1973. But he now fears for the fate of his nation
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On Tuesday lunchtime, the principal topic of conversation in the Butcher's Arms in the Llandaff suburb of Cardiff, as in pubs all over Wales, was the mysterious departure of Mike Ruddock, the condition of Gareth Thomas after his collapse while watching himself on television talking about the mysterious departure of Mike Ruddock, and the dirty great hole which Welsh rugby - euphorically celebrating a Grand Slam less than 12 months earlier - appeared to have dug for itself.

The three grey-haired men sitting by the fire, two in their sixties and the other a mere 59, debated the subject as hotly as anybody. One of them thought that Ruddock should and would be reinstated; another rubbished the idea, saying it couldn't possibly happen. None of the three could fathom why the coach had been forced out in the first place, only that it had been a nonsense for the Welsh Rugby Union to cite his "family commitments".

They all agreed that they had detected not even a hint of any unhappiness in the Welsh camp, and that they had been astonished by the news of Ruddock's departure. After draining a few more glasses of red wine and putting the world to rights on various other pressing matters, Barry John, Mervyn Davies and John Dawes then made their separate ways home.

These three legends of Welsh rugby meet up every Tuesday lunchtime - lunchtimes that sometimes stretch effortlessly into teatime. "Whether or not this Welsh team ever wins anything else, if the players have the bond that we had then they'll have it for ever," says Dawes. At 65 he is the senior member of the trio both in age and rank: a former captain not only of Wales but also of the Lions and Barbarians. And although he is somewhat less agile on his feet than he was as the quick-thinking centre who led the Lions to their inaugural series victory, almost 35 years ago in New Zealand, he is still agile of mind.

He welcomes me warmly to his home in Llandaff and quickly explains the presence of a shifty looking man with a long lens, a little further up the street: Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson live just a drop-kick away. Henson, back in the Wales squad, still has it all to prove, adds the shaven-legged one's distinguished predecessor in the centre. "He has talent, but I don't know whether he has enough talent to last a whole match. At the moment he's still living on a penalty kick."

It is only a day after the ritual get-together at the Butcher's Arms but Welsh rugby has already suffered a further blow with the news that Thomas, the talismanic captain and main conspirator in the removal of Ruddock according to some versions of the bizarre story, has suffered damage to the arteries in his neck and will be out for the rest of the season.

"It's yet another episode of Welsh rugby blotting its copybook," says Dawes, disbelievingly, of the Ruddock affair. "I think we must have a licence for it. The strange thing is that it involves different personnel, yet it seems hereditary that at some stage we will shoot ourselves in the foot. Every time, you think it can't happen again. How do you explain it? It must be a Welsh characteristic. Because Mike was doing a good job. All the signs were that everything was hunky-dory."

Dawes - who was the last man before Ruddock to coach Wales to a Grand Slam, in 1978, as twilight settled over the golden age of Welsh rugby - has his doubts about Ruddock's apparent successor, the beefy Australian Scott Johnson. "It's not that I think it should necessarily be a Welshman. [The New Zealander] Graham Henry revolutionised Welsh coaching because he wasn't a servant of the committee, as a Welshman would have been. And I know about that because the moment I became professional [in 1980, as the WRU's coaching director] I was everybody's servant, and in Wales they let you know it. But I'm not enamoured of this man [Johnson]. It's not so much the exhibition he gives on match days with his horrible shorts and horrible physique, trying to whip the crowd up. I'm more concerned about his coaching pedigree. Mike Ruddock came on a coaching course that I ran when I was with the WRU, and I could see then that he had all the qualities required of an international coach. [Johnson] I see as a back-up man, perhaps, but as No 1 I'm not so sure."

A heavy, wheezy sigh. "I fear for Sunday's game against Ireland. In the last quarter against France, the Irish came back into it with such venom, and if they carry that into Sunday's game, that's what frightens me. And for the Irish it's the first of a Triple Crown sequence, two of them at home. That's all the motivation they want. Then we've got Italy, who may frighten someone this year and it could be Wales. So if the French turn up then we could lose three games, and if that happens then we will really see the happenings of this week come to the forefront. There'll be no papering over the cracks then."

If it emerges that player power was responsible for the ditching of Ruddock, then Dawes stands at the heart of an irresistible comparison. In Cardiff in 1973, before captaining the Barbarians to victory over the All Blacks in what many still consider to have been the greatest rugby match of all time, Dawes tried to deploy player power to have a coach appointed.

That coach was Carwyn James, the idiosyncratic genius who had overseen the Lions' victory in New Zealand less than two years earlier. "A chain-smoking, wine-drinking intellectual," recalls Dawes of James. "A lover of classical music, a student of languages, a loner. Always well dressed, hardly ever raised his voice, met every problem with another pack of cigarettes. In terms of planning and organisation, he was well ahead of his time. He was a motivator, but not in a drum-beating way. And he looked after his players like family. In New Zealand we were given wine with dinner. Only one bottle between four, mind, but it was still a breakthrough. He treated us like grown-ups. Before that, only the committee members drank wine." In January 1973, Dawes was invited just a week before the match to come out of international retirement to captain the Barbarians. He agreed, but gave a condition: he wanted James to be involved.

"They said, 'The Baa-Baas don't have coaches. But if he happens to turn up at training, we won't say anything.' He didn't, of course. He wasn't going to go in by the back door, he wasn't that type of man. At the Thursday training session, no Carwyn James. At the Friday session, no Carwyn. So on the Saturday morning I invited him for coffee in my room at the Royal Hotel, and as it happened my room was full of players. Just a coincidence, of course. Anyway, I asked Carwyn if he'd like to say a few words, and what he said, and the way he said it, will always stick with me. Phil Bennett [James' protégé at Llanelli] was playing instead of Barry John. 'Take them on, Ben,' he said. 'At the earliest opportunity, take them on.' And after just four minutes ... you couldn't be more prophetic, could you?"

The try initiated by Bennett and scored by Gareth Edwards is the most talked about, the most dissected, in rugby history. Even Cliff Morgan's commentary is immortal. "Kirkpatrick ... to Bryan Williams ... this is great stuff ... Phil Bennett covering ... chased by Alistair Scown ... brilliant .... oh, that's brilliant ... John Williams ... Pullin ... John Dawes, great dummy ... David, Tom David, the halfway line ... brilliant by Quinnell ... this is Gareth Edwards .... a dramatic start ... what a score!"

The great Dawes dummy described by Morgan occurred just as the BBC switched camera angles, so has not been preserved for posterity. Which, the man himself implies, is just as well. "I've lived on that for dinner after dinner. People always say to me, 'Was it a dummy?' And I say, 'If Cliff Morgan says it was a dummy, then it was a dummy'."

When our laughter has died down, I ask him whether he also agrees with Morgan that Gareth Edwards was the greatest rugby player ever born. "No, no I don't. The greatest scrum-half, one of the greatest competitors, and those two alone make him an all-time great, but I always thought Gerald Davies was the greatest. He had something else, a touch of finesse, a magical quality. Gareth relied on his forwards, and sometimes he had no control of a situation. Gerald always seemed in control. I can't remember him ever doing anything wrong. If the wrong thing seemed likely to happen then he wouldn't get committed to it, and so it didn't happen. He was that far ahead of the game."

Would that those now in charge at the WRU exhibited the same sure-footedness, although Dawes laments not only the course that Welsh rugby has taken but the evolution of the game itself. "I don't think rugby should ever have gone professional. There was an avenue for those who wanted to play for money and it was called rugby league. Since professionalism there has been an influx of rugby league influence, and I find it unbelievable to see the players lined up across the field. You see a group of players fighting for the ball supposedly in a ruck or a maul, and outside them there's a six, a seven, an eight, a one, two or three. Not a back amongst them." Although he doesn't put it in quite so many words, the professionalism that he deplores has its human representation in the form of Sir Clive Woodward.

Dawes was glad that the Lions returned from New Zealand last summer with their golden tails between their legs, which is some admission from the first of only four men - Willie John McBride, Finlay Calder and Martin Johnson being the other three luminaries - to have captained a Great Britain and Ireland team in a victorious Test series.

"I was over there, actually, with the London Welsh rugby club choir. I shouldn't say that I was glad they lost, but I was, because what Woodward seemed to be doing was against the whole tradition of Lions rugby: too many people, the way he selected teams, the itinerary, the whole spirit of it. And I felt that, had he won, that could have become the norm." There are those, as he well knows, who would dismiss such musings - which I imagine get a sympathetic airing in the Butcher's most Tuesdays - as the outpourings of a reactionary old fool. "It's a point of view which is our privilege as old players," he says, reading my mind. "Nothing is ever good as it was when you're no longer a part of it. But I don't think they're enjoying the game as much as we did, and whereas professionalism has produced bigger, faster, stronger players, it hasn't improved the skill factor at all. I worry that countries which traditionally produce big men - England, for example, and South Africa - will become dominant. Look at the English backs, Cohen, Cueto, Tindall, all 15 stone plus, and they play by making the use of brute force. I'm not criticising it, but that's all they've got. You don't see any magic.

"At least from Wales last year we got some magic, and a carefree style of play. But you know, when we won the Grand Slam in '78, I had a squad of 30, containing probably 24 players of true international class. There was a real nucleus of strength. The Welsh squad last year didn't have that luxury. They had maybe eight good players, and the rest were making up the numbers. That shows what a remarkable achievement it was to win the Grand Slam." He smiles, ruefully, just as sleet begins to batter the window behind him. "It seems," he says, referring not to 1978 but to 2005, "a long time ago now."

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