Ruddock turns heat on Lewis and WRU

Furious coach puts chief executive's role in the spotlight
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The Independent Online

In his Valentine's Day message to the Welsh Rugby Union, which turned out to be a poison- pen letter, Mike Ruddock said his role was "more than a job". It only became impossible when those who were supposed to be supporting him switched their allegiance.

The party line was that the most successful Wales coach in almost three decades had resigned for "family reasons", a fashionable euphemism designed to observe clauses relating to compensation. In a press release issued post-haste, Ruddock played ball. "After consulting with my family I have made the decision to stand down," he said. "It has been a tough decision but I've decided to put my family first."

He went on to describe his experience as being a "very enjoyable couple of years". That does not sit with the picture of a man carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

Ruddock would go quietly, but by the end of the week the game had changed. Furious at his portrayal by the WRU chief executive, Steve Lewis, Ruddock called for an emergency meeting of the 18-man board. "The WRU are not in full possession of the facts," he said. He will be able to tell them at 4.30pm on Tuesday.

Lewis, who was promoted from general manager to chief executive when David Moffett left at Christmas, had hinted that Ruddock found the job beyond him: "The role of head coach to the national team carries immense pressures, and Mike has found these unacceptable." Later he went further. Asked why he had not allowed Ruddock to continue to the end of the Six Nations, he referred to the coach's mental state and questioned whether he could have continued. Ruddock had heard enough.

He would already have been aware of a joke in the Wales camp. His nickname was "Bus". Why? Because he would never be a coach. He would also have been aware that the players were closer to Scott Johnson, the skills coach employed by his predecessors,who now takes over, at least for the rest of the Six Nations.

The WRU, too, were aware of the situation, and their failure to produce a new contract is another reason for Ruddock's jaw-dropping departure. He stood between the players and the Union and did not receive a Valentine card from either.

When Steve Hansen left Wales to return to New Zealand two years ago Ruddock did not apply for the job - the players expected Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli to be appointed - but he got it anyway, which was a massive vote of confidence. Last season, of course, he took Wales to their first Grand Slam in 27 years, and they did it in brilliant fashion. "We're looking forwards not backwards as we build a squad for the World Cup," he said.

So what prompted the hero of the Principality to walk out in the middle of the Six Nations and with the World Cup on the horizon? Three reasons.

1 It is understood the senior players, led by the captain, Gareth Thomas, felt that Ruddock took too much of the credit for Wales's success. In the New Year's Honours Ruddock was awarded an OBE, only the second Welsh coach, after Carwyn James, who masterminded the Lions victory in New Zealand in 1971, to receive such recognition. "It's not about me," Ruddock said. "I accept this on behalf of the entire team and management."

2 They felt that Ruddock's approach was too distant. While he was in the background, the man rubbing shoulders with the players was Johnson.

3 The Gavin Henson affair. The centre's book upset a lot of people, including his colleagues. Henson had to apologise in front of the team, but the players were unhappy that Ruddock took no part in the matter.

A few weeks ago, before the game against England at Twickenham which Wales lost heavily, some of the senior players, believed to be Thomas, Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams, met Lewis at a pub, the Castell Mynach, near their training camp. Ruddock was out of the loop and the meeting was not arranged to discuss the price of a pint of Brains. Johnson was hinting that he might return to Australia. The players wanted him to stay. This is Henson on Johnson: "I don't think Scott has got the full credit he deserves. It's been his thinking that has allowed the team to really express itself."

Initially Lewis denied there had been a meeting. "I'm not aware of any unease about Mike's coaching and I've not had any meetings with any players." Later he said: "I have meetings with players all the time."

After Wales conceded six tries to England the players wanted to go to a nightclub in London. Ruddock, who plays guitar in a band called Mid-Life Crisis, is no killjoy, but he thought that under the circumstances it was not a good idea. Some of the players went clubbing anyway - in Kingston. Ruddock was "absolutely castigated" for his stance.

There was another flashpoint last week when Gareth Thomas and the team refused to attend a press conference until a BBC reporter, who had written Henson's book, left. Ruddock sat at a table on his own, his advice to the players once again ignored. The following day Thomas - it was Ruddock who made him captain - apologised. The former postman will be able to give his version in his book which comes out in October.

The players have profited since negotiating new contracts with Lewis last year. Ruddock - his record was played 20, won 13 - had no such luck. He has spent eight months trying to pin down a new contract, but the WRU insisted on what he thought were unacceptable clauses, like retaining the right to make any appointment to the coaching staff without reference to Ruddock. Nor had he any authority over Johnson who, famously, has no contract at all. He has the option of returning to Australia, where he has a son and daughter - his wife died last year - and where he could join the new Wallabies' coach, John Connolly.

Lewis said Johnson was "desperate" to become Wales coach. Johnson sees it differently. "This is not a job I coveted. It has landed on my lap for a period. Had I not taken it it would have been inappropriate for the team."

Thomas denied the influence of "player power" and paid tribute to Ruddock. "He's a brilliant coach and a brilliant person, who played a vital part in the Grand Slam. We all support his decision and wish him well in whatever he decides to do." Ruddock may well decide that it is time to tackle the Union.