Ring's mission: true freedom for the Welsh

Blinkered coaches are taking the nation down blind alley. Hugh Godwin reports
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The Independent Online

It comes as no surprise that, when Caerphilly were giving Llanelli's defensive ramparts a good rattling last weekend, their coach, Mark Ring, was heard to shout: "Throw it wide". No surprise, either, that Ring recently aimed a withering broadside at some of his counterparts in Wales, who he said were more interested in keeping their jobs than producing attractive rugby and better players. In the tracksuit now, just as he was as a player, Ring is challengingly different.

It comes as no surprise that, when Caerphilly were giving Llanelli's defensive ramparts a good rattling last weekend, their coach, Mark Ring, was heard to shout: "Throw it wide". No surprise, either, that Ring recently aimed a withering broadside at some of his counterparts in Wales, who he said were more interested in keeping their jobs than producing attractive rugby and better players. In the tracksuit now, just as he was as a player, Ring is challengingly different.

But before going any further, you should know that the one thing Ring objects to above all else is being portrayed as the inveterate romantic. When he says that leagues have been bad for Wales, he is bemoaning the lost chance to measure standards against those in England. When he casts aspersions on Welsh coaches pulling in salaries upwards of £60,000, he is not name-calling, merely calling on those concerned to earn their corn. Which means, in Ring's terms, developing players capable of dragging the country out of the doldrums and also inspiring youngsters in the way he was inspired by Gerald Davies and Barry John.

"I've got a reputation of being off the wall, the clown prince and all that," Ring said in a break from Caerphilly's preparations for yesterday's derby match with Ebbw Vale. "But I always made sure the games were won before I did anything eccentric. The difference today is that defence has become paramount, and pressure has crept in. The coaches will argue that they haven't got the tools, as in the players, and so have to play to their strengths. But coaches influence the team greatly, and a lot of it is uninspired, straight out of the manual."

Very few of the spectators treated, if that is the word, to Wales's opening exchanges in this season's Celtic League would disagree. For Friday night read fright night, with Swansea against Neath nine days ago drawing a pathetic 3,000, and Bridgend's games against Newport and Ponty-pridd likewise displaying a dearth of back-line invention.

Ring's old club, Cardiff, began disastrously, with defeats by Glasgow and Connacht. As for Caerphilly in that match against Llanelli, well, last season's bottom team did lose to the one that finished top, but at least they scored five tries in the process.

"I do coach the basics," Ring said, anticipating the hoary references to his penchant, while winning 32 caps at fly-half and centre, of weaving lines of attack that would give Picasso a migraine.

"My players are given repetitive passing drills and ball- retention drills. I read Alex Ferguson's book, where he described how David Beckham practised crossing over and over again. People said about me: 'He's lucky, he's a natural'. They forget that, when the old man sent me down to the shops, I'd be sidestepping every crisp packet in the street. It's that philosophy – hard work but also challenging players to be creative – I'm trying to get over. Pass and move, don't run up and down the same channels."

Ring cites as kindred spirits Gareth Jenkins at Llanelli, and Neath's Lyn Jones, although he feels even they are increasingly compromised by the power-based, multiple-phase approach of their English opponents in the Heineken Cup. It is clear that his principal beef is with backs coaches whose idea of a No 12 is a brainless battering ram, and who generally bring to the finer arts of the rugby field all the imagination of a soggy suet pudding.

Give him time, and Ring will enthral you with lessons learned from playing against the great New Zealand side of the late 1980s, or for Cardiff in the 1996 Heineken Cup final, when Toulouse "murdered us with angles" run by the likes of Christophe Deylaud and Thomas Castaignède.

He applauds the All Black preference for first and second five-eighths, seeing shades of it in England's use of Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Catt, and is scornful of inside-centres who bash the ball up at the expense of creativity. Arwel Thomas, he adds, was let down by successive Wales coaches, who failed to protect and nurture an outstanding talent. And as for Iestyn Harris... "When the ball is kicked behind you, you've got to get moving and get back round," said Ring. "Iestyn stands still. He's obviously not been told."

Ring has faith in the Welsh public to know quality when they see it, whatever the style being employed (and, yes, that can mean kicking when it's filthy wet and blowing a gale). Disarmingly, he admits that being paid "peanuts" at Caerphilly gives him a certain freedom of expression. But he cares enough to be starting out on a three-year course in Wales's élite coaching programme, despite twice getting knocked back at the interview stage. So does he fancy the Wales job? "No, I coach because I like it. I just want to bring something to the game."

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