As roller-coaster years go, 2005 is proving to be a Pepsi-Max Big One for Welsh rugby. The Blackpool roller-coaster has alarming, precipitous falls from improbable, towering heights, and the Welsh coach Mike Ruddock knows all about that: at any rate, a win by the narrowest of squeaks against humble Fiji a week ago, on top of an almighty trouncing by New Zealand, represents quite a decline for a side that only eight months ago were celebrating a thrilling, long-awaited Grand Slam. There were many in the Principality then who might have rubbed their hands in gleeful anticipation of the Tri-Nations teams visiting Cardiff. Now, they're placing the same hands over their eyes.
Moreover, there is the Gavin Henson affair to consider, the glamour-boy centre having caused rather a scene by implying in his recent book that some of his international team-mates are about as Welsh as Rotorua town centre, and should therefore not be eligible.
In the circumstances, then, it is a surprisingly cheerful, upbeat Ruddock who greets me with an iron handshake by the side of the pitch in an eerily quiet Millennium Stadium, where he has just overseen a training session in preparation for tomorrow afternoon's encounter with the Springboks.
He has not lost confidence in his coaching abilities, he tells me, because good coaches never do. "I'm sure Sir Alex Ferguson thought that before beating Chelsea the other week. You don't suddenly become a bad coach. Sport is sport. One team will win, one team will lose. I'm delighted for Andy Robinson getting a result on Saturday, because he's had a few comments thrown his way. Andy's a great coach, and there isn't a top coach in the world who's never lost, unless he's retired very, very early."
When pushed, Ruddock admits that the pleasure he took in England's defeat of Australia last weekend did not derive entirely from his respect and concern for Robinson. "I'd always rather see a northern hemisphere team win, because it breeds confidence among the other northern hemisphere teams."
Conversely, when a northern hemisphere team is chewed up and spat out, as both Wales and Ireland have been by the All Blacks this month, it breeds anything but confidence. How on earth might England beat New Zealand at Twickenham tomorrow? "By carrying the ball at them. New Zealand haven't been tested yet. Ireland, like ourselves, were lacking cohesion, playing catch-up rugby. England have to make New Zealand tackle, trying to find the gaps in their defence, rather than doing the tackling themselves all the time. And they have to get the set piece right. But they have the personnel to do that."
Right. Enough about England v New Zealand. What about Wales v South Africa? Ruddock might be all smiles - cheerfully promoting Powerade, one of the sponsors of the Wales XV - but Colin Charvis, the former captain, gives more than a hint of the beleaguered feeling in the Welsh camp, when he asks me whether perchance I write for the Western Mail. I tell him I don't. "Oh," he says, looking disappointed. "Only there's an article on page 12 today which says that the decline of Welsh rugby since the 1970s is all to do with the decline in bobble hats. So now we know where we're going wrong! Unbelievable!"
Later, I read the offending article and find that it is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, clearly not intended to be taken seriously. What Charvis might more reasonably have objected to is that anyone should even think about writing about the decline of Welsh rugby, however light-heartedly, in Grand Slam year. And after Ruddock has guided me through the bowels of the stadium to a couple of chairs in the corner of a physiotherapy room, he takes up this theme and runs with it.
"I'm surprised people are talking about a huge dip in form," he says. "We did very well on our summer tour [of the US and Canada] and in this autumn series so far we've lost one and won one.
"Also, New Zealand's result against Ireland puts things in context. They're a very good side. But that's partly because they've been together for a while and have such cohesion. We've had more time together now.
"I'm confident we'll be in good shape for our next two Tests [the Wallabies, shorn of some of their traditional bounce, follow the Springboks to Cardiff]. We've only beaten South Africa once in our history, but we got within two points last year, and we have players coming back. I'm very optimistic we'll do well. We know what we're capable of. We're still Grand Slam champions."
Indeed. So 2005 cannot yet be officially declared a roller-coaster year? "A roller-coaster? Coaching is always a roller-coaster. I've been doing this for 20 years and I've won championships and finished at the bottom of leagues. The team didn't play well against Fiji, but we'd lost a number of players back to English and French clubs, including Gareth Thomas [required by Toulouse], who's been an inspirational captain for us.
"On the other hand, it gave us an opportunity to blood new players who will be there or thereabouts for us in the Six Nations. And we got a win under our belts. It wasn't pretty, there were 21 handling errors, but a couple of years ago Wales would have struggled to win that game, relying on the flair of the backs and getting shunted around in the scrum, yet suddenly here we are scoring a pushover try. So we're making progress."
Ruddock, I fancy, is being a little disingenuous, spinning the truth like a good scrum-half spins the ball. That a pushover try was needed to beat Fiji 11-10 is surely a source more of concern than satisfaction. And it can't have been very pleasant, with Wales 7-0 down at half-time, contemplating defeat.
"Hand on heart, I never did. I always felt we had a try in us. We had all the territory, all the possession, but they played the right tactics, offloading superbly and scoring a long-range try. And to be fair, the lock who scored is as quick as most centres and wingers in Wales at the moment. He's quite an athlete.
"Also, they kept going down injured, slowing the game down, disrupting our tempo, and that's something the IRB [International Rugby Board] might have to look at. We pride ourselves on a high-tempo approach. Against Scotland in the Six Nations I think we established a ball-in-play world record. We want a fast, open game, and the IRB need to look at it from a product point of view.
"If front-row players go down, then it's a safety issue, fair enough. But in other areas against Fiji there was a situation where we were waiting for a player to be treated in the dead-ball area." Ruddock shakes his big head in disbelief.
"Now, I know we only won because Nicky Robinson put a drop goal over, but [a mischievous smile plays on the coach's lips] what about when England won the World Cup? It takes a drop goal sometimes to get a result. We felt our normal game wasn't working so we won in a different way, with a pushover try and a drop goal, maybe showing the attributes of certain other nations [to wit, the English] when we've always relied on our flair."
The absence of Henson, recovering from groin surgery, is one reason why Ruddock cannot rely quite so much on flair at present. But in terms of team spirit, perhaps it's as well that Henson's shaved legs will not be in evidence in the changing-room tomorrow. Whatever, the subject seems worth dragging up again if only because it has again been in the news, last Friday's captain, Michael Owen, sticking the boot in this week on the back of Charvis's beloved Western Mail.
"I think that was old news, actually," says Ruddock with a sigh. "Michael writes a column for a local paper, and it was something he'd already said [in that]. From my point of view, the right thing happened. Gavin was contacted by the players and they aired their views, while he was given a chance to explain how the book serialisation perhaps changed the context. It looks like both sides parted amicably, and Gavin just needs to concentrate on getting fit so I can assess whether he's ready to play international rugby again.
"At the moment he's no different from every other player outside the squad. Anyone out there who wants to know what they need to do to get into the Welsh squad, can make an appointment to see me and I'll explain where they are, and the areas that need to be looked at, in terms of becoming candidates to play."
This, I venture, seems a somewhat brusque dismissal of Henson, a player - according to one of the finest products of the fabled Welsh fly-half factory, Jonathan Davies - whom Wales can scarcely manage without.
Has Ruddock read Henson's book? "No, I've far too many other things on my mind. Look, Gavin Henson is outside my squad. He'll have a chat with me to see what areas he needs to work on to get back into the team, and any other extraneous issues that need to be discussed can be done then."
At least Ruddock did not need to take Henson's comments personally, being Welsher than Welsh. I tell him that another product of the great fly-half factory, Cliff Morgan, told me during the New Zealander Graham Henry's tenure that not to have appointed a Welsh coach was "a disservice" to the nation. "And I'm not being nationalistic," Morgan added, "I'm being sensible. We play rugby instinctively. You couldn't coach Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies, you could only make them feel part of a system."
Well, however Ruddock did it, he masterminded a Grand Slam. "But it's nothing to do with being Welsh," he says. "I suppose that might make one per cent of difference, and if that's the case then it's worthwhile, but I don't think it is. It was the adjustments we made, eliminating the fault line in the scrum and so on, that made the difference, not my nationality."
All the same, it must have been deeply moving for a lad from the Monmouthshire valleys to coach a side to the Grand Slam - especially a fellow in his mid-forties who was in his formative years as a back-row forward during the Slamming 1970s, and who played against the likes of JPR Williams early in an amateur career cut devastatingly short when, carrying out repairs while working as a linesman for the electricity board, he was knocked off a telegraph pole in 1985. After all, the halcyon years were also the amateur years.
"A lot of people in Wales don't like talking about the Seventies, but I'm happy to," he adds. "That's still our model: a strong pack and great backs... Gerald, JPR and so on. In winning the Grand Slam I think we played like Wales played in the Seventies, with a smile on our faces."
And was there also a tear running into the smile when the Grand Slam was won? "No, no. I only cry when we lose. But I certainly celebrated. I thought we could do it once we beat France out there, basically a mission impossible for the Welsh team over the years.
"We had everything you look for in a team: skill, flair, ability to absorb pressure, perseverance, individual will to win, collective will to win. And it had been a long time coming. But it's gone now. There's a line drawn under it."
A line which might get a little bolder tomorrow.
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