Ruddock tackles the mountain

Autumn internationals: Daunting Cardiff date with Tri-Nations champions just the first hurdle of a crucial year
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When Mike Ruddock was appointed coach of Wales you could have knocked Cardiff Castle over with three feathers. It wasn't that he wasn't rated, but to win a competition you have to enter, and he chose not to. "No," admitted the refusenik, "I never expected to be in this position."

When Mike Ruddock was appointed coach of Wales you could have knocked Cardiff Castle over with three feathers. It wasn't that he wasn't rated, but to win a competition you have to enter, and he chose not to. "No," admitted the refusenik, "I never expected to be in this position."

Ruddock has beaten the system. The Welsh Rugby Union have broken the habit of a lifetime in moving the mountain to Mohammed. All Ruddock has to do now is climb it, against a debt of around £53 million. The rise in interest rates makes every brick of the Millennium Stadium seem like a gold ingot.

David Moffett, the chief executive, has been cutting costs and raising revenue. "I've always been an advocate of no pain, no gain," Moffett said. "But an organisation can endure that amount of pain for only so long. Now is the time to concentrate on the game itself. If the past 12 months have been hard then the next year is vital for professional rugby in Wales."

This is some job Ruddock has taken on, but he has been through more painful experiences. In the amateur days he was a back-row forward with Swansea when he wasn't working as an electrician. A shocking accident changed every- thing. He was up a ladder when it was knocked from beneath him by a lorry. He suffered a fractured skull and broken vertebrae. "I received some compensation," he said. "But it was nothing to compensate for the loss of my rugby. At 26 my career was over."

Ruddock turned to coaching, starting on the bottom rung with the junior club Blaina. "I didn't want to lose touch with the game. I loved playing and I found I loved coaching."

And he climbed - there's no getting away from it - the ladder. His reputation was enhanced when he coached Leinster from 1997-2000 and, after Wales went through hell in forcing the clubs to form regions, was working a minor miracle with the Newport Gwent Dragons in the midst of political mayhem when Steve Hansen, the national coach, returned to New Zealand.

"I thought about applying but decided against it. The Dragons, or Newport or Gwent or whatever people wanted to call them, had gone through turmoil. We lost our first three games but then things began to turn around. I was enjoying the challenge and I'd put so much into it I felt I'd climbed a mountain. I didn't want to climb another one."

Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli coach, was a red-hot favourite. "Gareth had a pedigree and everybody thought he'd get it. Then the WRU came knocking on my door. I went for an interview the next night. Although I didn't have much time to prepare I was comfortable. David Moffett wouldn't have known much about me, but I delivered the information and I could tell by the look on their faces that it was well received."

While Wales were frightening the wits out of New Zealand and England in the World Cup, Ruddock was commentating for ITV in a studio in Cardiff. "Wales were a revelation, and I don't want to change too much from the way they played in Australia. My priority is to tighten up the set-piece, get the scrum and line-out working consistently and be more aggressive in defence. I'm two or three players away from fielding an exciting squad." They have a new sponsor in Brains, the Cardiff brewers. What they were looking for was brawn.

Ruddock has recalled Clive Griffiths to marshal his defence and has introduced two uncapped forwards, Luke Charteris and Ryan Jones, for the autumn Tests, starting with South Africa in Cardiff on Saturday. Then it's Romania on 12 November, New Zealand on the 20th and Japan on the 26th. Tickets for the Friday-night games against Romania and Japan are as low as £8, but there are incentives to subscribe to all four matches.

Ruddock's first task last summer was to take Wales to Argentina and South Africa. They won the Second Test against the Pumas but lost 53-18 to the Springboks in Pretoria, a crushing end to the tour. "We didn't have an answer to a team that was much, much better than us on the day," Ruddock said. "I'm hoping we'll show them our better side in Cardiff. It's a huge challenge. The Boks are the Tri-Nations champions and they arrive here having been in training camp for a couple of weeks. I've got my players for four days. What we've got to instil is the desire, the passion and the will to win, a will that could have made the World Cup so much more memorable."

Ruddock bemoans the fact that the Bridgend-based Celtic Warriors went to the wall this year, leaving Wales with four professional teams instead of five. "The saddest thing is that Pontypridd and Bridgend have been sidelined. The reality is down to what we can afford. Is there an alternative? I have to work with the structure we've got."

Gareth Thomas, once a Warrior, joined Toulouse and has been promoted to Wales's captaincy with Colin Charvis, who left France for Newcastle, as vice captain.

Last weekend's results in the Heineken Cup were a kick in the teeth for Welsh rugby, with all four sides losing, including the previously unbeaten Neath-Swansea team, who were overpowered up front by Castres. Today Ruddock will be at The Gnoll in Neath to see the Ospreys against Munster, having taken in Cardiff-Stade Français on Friday and Northampton-Llanelli yesterday.

Last week Ruddock, who lives in the Mumbles, where his two sons play junior rugby, took his family for a break to Portmeirion. He won't see much of them in the near future. "It's been an incredibly hectic six months without much to show for it. Everybody wants a bit of you. I miss the day-to-day contact with the players but I'm enjoying it."

A couple of weeks ago he personally delivered a letter to Gareth Jenkins saying how delighted he was that Jenkins would be a part of Clive Woodward's coaching team for the Lions tour of New Zealand next year. "My focus is on Wales and to establish myself as an international coach," Ruddock said.

Sir Clive arrives at Wales's Vale of Glamorgan base in the build-up to the game against the All Blacks. "I've asked him to speak to the players and 50 coaches in the country about what makes a winning team. Everybody will be on their toes an extra 10 per cent." Funny that. Woodward helping a side against a country coached by Graham Henry, the man he goes head to head with with the Lions next summer.