Ruddock overcomes suspicion through language of success

A little over a year ago, the chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, David Pickering, felt it necessary to issue a personal statement defending the selection of Mike Ruddock as national coach. Or, more to the point, defending the non-selection of Gareth Jenkins.

Ruddock had publicly ruled himself out of the running some months previously, while the whole of the rugby community west of the Severn appeared to have ruled Jenkins in. When the WRU made its appointment, the solids hit the air conditioning with considerable force. It was, said the great unwashed, an exercise in political convenience: the elevation of an establishment yes-man over the head of a heart-on-the-sleeve populist.

Pickering is one of the men at the very heart of the "new Wales"; a Wales in which regionalisation has effectively disenfranchised huge swathes of the rugby public, leaving the good folk of Pontypridd, Ebbw Vale and Bridgend without a professional team to call their own. Had Ruddock failed to make an immediate impact - had the Test side suffered 40-point defeats by South Africa and New Zealand in the autumn and then been thrashed by England at the start of the Six Nations Championship - the chairman and his committee-room allies would have been toast.

But Ruddock has not failed. He has succeeded in spades. Tomorrow, against Ireland at the Millennium Stadium, his team will challenge for a first Grand Slam since 1978, when Gareth, Benny, J J and J P R of blessed memory lorded it over the whole of Europe. But that is only the half of it. Born in Blaina and reared as a tough-nut flanker in the great nurseries of Tredegar and Swansea before donning the tracksuit and reaching for the clipboard, the 45-year-old coach has "Welshified" the national side in precisely the way the public imagined Jenkins would do it. Not only are Ruddock's men playing the rugby of their forefathers, albeit in a modern context; they are talking about their business with the passion of old, and with a confidence the greats of the 1970s would instantly recognise.

"We're not winning our games just because the coach is a Welshman," Ruddock remarked this week, in answer to the suggestion that his immediate predecessors, the New Zealanders Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, might not have been attuned to the heartbeat of the game in Wales or responded to its unique dynamics and biorhythms. "We're winning because we're doing the one per cents that little bit better than we were." But after a pause, he added: "Actually, I do think that real Welshness - an appreciation of the history of the sport here, of the people and their rugby heritage - might be among those one per cents. It probably is important that the coaches have that understanding." Jenkins, very much a man of his own people, would have struggled to put it better.

Ruddock could not have hoped to match his rival's aura of sporting romance. Jenkins, a lifelong servant of the Llanelli club, learned his trade at the knee of the patron saint of Stradey Park, the late Carwyn James, while Ruddock cut his coaching teeth in less enchanting surroundings: his native Blaina, Cross Keys and Bective Rangers, the Dublin-based team who first lured him across the Irish Sea. He had his moments, though. He guided Swansea to the Welsh domestic title in 1992 - the All Whites also beat the touring Wallabies that season - and a league and cup double in 1995. Already, he was being talked of as an international coach of the none too distant future.

There was still one formative experience ahead of him, however, and it unfolded back in Dublin's fair city, where Ruddock became Leinster's first full-time coach in 1997. Charged with contracting the best young talent in town, he offered professional terms to, among others, Denis Hickie, Malcolm O'Kelly, Reggie Corrigan and the extraordinary Brian O'Driscoll, all of whom play for Ireland in Cardiff tomorrow and will do their damnedest to deny their old boss the victory of his dreams.

Ruddock was alive to this irony as he named his side on Wednesday. "Under the circumstances, do you regret signing O'Driscoll?" he was asked. "I'm not sure how I could have avoided it," he replied with a smirk.

It is now obvious that Ruddock was the WRU's preferred successor to Hansen from the outset, even though he declined to participate in the formal selection process. Did the union string Jenkins along? Many in Wales believe so. There again, Ruddock was a more worldly, widely travelled coach than his rival. On returning to Wales, he worked with the national A team as well as Ebbw Vale and, latterly, the Newport-Gwent Dragons. Jenkins, meanwhile, was still in Llanelli. He was undeniably successful, not least at Heineken Cup level, but his big-fish, small-pond image did not float many boats at board level.

For all that, Ruddock must have feared the national job had passed him by. "It was out of my hands, so there was no point worrying about it," he said. "I do as a coach the things I ask my players to do: get my head down, perform my role to the best of my ability and not waste time and energy thinking about other opportunities unless and until they're offered. I felt honoured when I was asked to coach Wales, and yes, I felt I deserved the chance after nigh on 20 years working at the coalface. I'd done the roller- coaster ride, been through the good and the bad and reached a stage where I felt I could contribute. But it's not about me. It's about the team, and the team behind the team. And anyway, we're at the start of something here, rather than the end of it. There is plenty of room for improvement."

He is a persuasive sort, this Ruddock. He has even convinced his Irish wife, Bernie, that she should shout for Wales this weekend. By comparison, coaxing the best from his players will be child's play, especially as he speaks their language.

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