Ruddock charges up on blind side to take over as Wales coach

Gareth Jenkins, a popular hero cast in the image of the great Carwyn James and widely acknowledged to be the best tactician in the British game, is staying at Llanelli Scarlets; Mark Evans, the sharpest rugby administrator in the English Premiership, is remaining with Harlequins. After a long and exhaustive selection process, the Welsh Rugby Union have chosen Mike Ruddock, who was the only serious candidate who declined to participate in that process, as national coach. It could happen only in Wales.

Everyone in the Principality assumed the WRU was running a two-horse race to replace the New Zealander Steve Hansen at the end of the Six Nations' Championship: Jenkins, the patron saint of Stradey Park and very much the people's choice, against Evans, the power-suited outsider from the big city at the distant end of the M4.

Even the WRU general committee thought so. But on Monday, the kingmakers from the union executive approached Ruddock and asked him to reconsider his earlier decision not to apply for the most demanding post in European rugby - a decision he had taken considerable trouble to make public by issuing a statement through the good offices of Newport-Gwent Dragons.

Ruddock agreed to make a presentation, and was effectively offered the job on the spot. The general committee ratified that decision yesterday morning, and the announcement was made just after lunchtime. It was the fastest move witnessed in the Welsh game - not to say the most surprising - since Gerald Davies last played on the right wing.

"When the union asked me to make the presentation, I was excited by the opportunity," said Ruddock, who did not explain why the same opportunity had failed to excite him as recently as mid-January. "It is certainly something I have always wanted to do, and something I want to do to the best of my ability. I hope we will see an improvement in all aspects of the professional game in Wales."

Born in Gwent, the 44-year-old former flanker played for both Tredegar and Swansea and won a Wales B cap in 1982 before being forced into retirement by the after-effects of a work accident. His coaching skills were obvious from the start: he guided Swansea to a league and cup double, performed well in Ireland with Leinster and somehow made something of an Ebbw Vale club fallen on hard times.

In 1995, he was part of the Wales back-room team at the 1995 World Cup. He also worked closely with Brian Ashton, then national coach of Ireland, during his time in Dublin.

There are few issues about Ruddock's ability, and his recent successes with a largely anonymous Dragons side mark him out as an unusually gifted strategist. But the manner of his appointment is peculiar in the extreme.

As Gareth Edwards, the most revered of Welsh legends, remarked: "Mike is a high-calibre coach, but you have to wonder where the WRU are coming from. You have to ask whether they have picked the right man, or simply gone for whoever made the fewest demands."

There is the rub. The story doing the rounds in Wales yesterday was that the union had failed to reach agreement with Jenkins, both over the length of the proposed contract and on the precise make-up of his support staff. As a result, the Welsh have a new leader in Ruddock, and a new "lost leader" in Jenkins - a shadow behind the throne. Thirty years ago, Carwyn James found himself in precisely the same position. The parallels are uncanny.

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