The rag doll, an object of intense desire in matches between Bath and Llanelli for more generations than anyone cares to remember, will be dangling from one of the crossbars at the Millennium Stadium this evening when the two grand old clubs, subject to much tinkering and tampering since the dawning of professionalism but essentially the same as they ever were, meet in the semi-final of the Powergen Cup. As a symbol of the current parlous state of Welsh rugby, it could hardly be bettered: not just the doll, but the hanging of it.
Less than a year after completing a Grand Slam to gladden the heart and lift the soul, the Red Dragonhood find themselves on the end of a rope, having constructed their own gallows and knotted their own noose. Mike Ruddock, their Six Nations-winning coach, has been pushed out in circumstances so impenetrably murky that the financial arrangements of the Jowell household seem positively transparent by comparison; Scott Johnson, the temporary successor many senior players would like to see made permanent, is being drawn towards his native Australia as a pin is drawn by a magnet; and Llanelli themselves are at loggerheads with the national union over what they see - quite correctly, it has to be said - as a shamefully cynical move to isolate the most dynamic player in the land, Dwayne Peel, in an unpleasant outbreak of club-versus-countryitis.
For those watching these dramas unfold, it is difficult - nay, impossible - to be unaware of the presence of Gareth Jenkins, viewed by a clear majority of the Welsh rugby constituency as their lost leader, their one true king. Not even his enemies in the Welsh Rugby Union dispute his status as the disciple of Carwyn James, the patron saint of Stradey Park and the greatest coach never to be given charge of the national team. Jenkins being the second greatest, he occupies a position of enormous significance, especially in times of trouble. As the vacuum at the top end of the Welsh game expands, many believe he is the only candidate capable of filling it.
Just one small problem here: the Scarlets director of rugby has already told the WRU to go play with the traffic. Within hours of Ruddock's departure, he ruled himself out of the running on the grounds that he could not, would not, operate alongside those in the hierarchy who, less than two years previously, had rejected him in favour of Ruddock, despite the fact that the latter had not even applied for the job. Were these sentiments expressed in the heat of the moment or in the cold light of day?
"My view has not changed," he said this week. "I feel it would be impossible to work with the people who decided so recently that I didn't have the skills to perform the role. The panel responsible for the decision included Pickering [David Pickering, chairman of the union] and Lewis [Steve Lewis, now the chief executive], and when people like that have taken such a view, it's clearly very difficult for me to contemplate renewing my interest in the position."
So what would it take for him to change tack if, as expected, he found himself swept forwards on another wave of popular support? "There would have to be very serious discussions," he replied, pointedly. "There would have to be a willingness to create a completely new environment." As Pickering and Lewis are unlikely to instigate that creative process by resigning, there is no immediate likelihood of Jenkins taking on the job widely considered to be his due. Maybe this is just as well, given the prevailing atmosphere between his beloved Scarlets and the union. Llanelli are incandescent with anger over Johnson's insistence that Peel stand down from this afternoon's showpiece occasion as a protective measure ahead of next weekend's Six Nations business with Italy - "I can't quite believe it's actually happened," the coach said in a tone of profound exasperation - and many of Jenkins's strongest opinions on the development of the Welsh game and the relationship between international and regional rugby are too rich and radical to be easily digested by the stuffed shirts and committee types thronging the corridors of power in Cardiff.
For instance, Jenkins believes the WRU's view of Test activity as the be-all and end-all of the professional game to be "unrealistic", and warns that Welsh rugby will go to hell in a handcart unless urgent steps are taken to help the four regional teams punch their weight, both in the Celtic League and in Europe.
"Regional rugby has to be an end in itself," he said. "The idea that the Scarlets or the Ospreys are nothing more than developmental operations is not sustainable. Sure, we'll bring players through to Test level, but the regions aren't about development. They're about fierce rivalry, about winning matches and winning competitions.
"If you went round the other three regions in Wales, they would all want us to lose this game against Bath. That is not a bad thing; it's as it should be. It's natural. When Wales play an international, it's right that the whole country gets behind them, that our patriotism comes to the fore. Outside of internationals, we all want each other to be beaten. It's been like this for ever, and will never be any different. Is it part of the problem? Of course not. It's part of the solution. It's in the fabric of our game, this rivalry; it's what drives us, what puts us on edge. I don't think this is properly understood in some quarters.
"My personal view is that we have a missing link in our rugby, the link that connects the professional game with the age-group game. The All Blacks established that link long ago through their National Provincial Championship. We do not have a tier to compare. In addition, there is a worrying lack of dialogue at the professional end. None of our teams have qualified for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, yet we have not been brought together as a group to identify how and why this has happened. There is nothing progressive or pro-active about the way we're running things. It's not as if we live miles apart, is it? If I was coaching Wales, I could share a pot of coffee with any of the regional coaches within 45 minutes of agreeing to meet."
At least there will be a meeting of minds today. Jenkins the folk hero finds himself plotting against the most imaginative English coach of the last quarter of a century, Brian Ashton, whose work with Bath since resurfacing at the Recreation Ground a couple of months ago has been characteristically idiosyncratic and highly effective.
"We watched Bath at the start of the season and felt they were struggling to put their game together, whatever they considered that game to be," Jenkins said. "Just recently, there has been a release of structure. There is more looseness about them, more freedom." Jenkins, one of the heaven-sent Scarlets who prevailed over the All Blacks at Stradey Park in 1972, regularly played against Bath during his 10 years in the Llanelli back row, and witnessed at first hand the early stages of their climb to the summit of the English game.
"We played them once a season then, always in February," he recalled. "I remember coming up against Gerry Parsons, a postman with big thick sideburns; I remember Gareth Chilcott starting out as a young prop. They had some good backs - John Palmer and Mike Beese, with Simon Halliday just coming through - but it changed for them when they toughened up their pack. Who was that blond farmer they had on the flank? That's right, Roger Spurrell. He was a rough handful, that's for sure. Andy Robinson eventually replaced him and was very competitive, but I don't think he can have been quite as nasty."
It is a while since the two clubs disputed the same rectangle of mud - four years, to be precise. On that occasion, Llanelli gave the West Countrymen an unholy Sabbath afternoon pasting in a Heineken Cup quarter-final at the Rec, and celebrated the achievement with understandable vigour. They lost a tight semi-final to Leicester, however, and have not quite been the same side since, despite winning the Celtic League two seasons ago. Jenkins sees their recent travails in the wider context of the professional game in Wales as a whole.
"There are three English sides and us left in the Powergen Cup, and that seems to me to be an accurate reflection of where we are in this country," he said. "We are a little vulnerable in Wales at the moment, which is why it is vital that we relish this opportunity and chuck ourselves at it. Dwayne would have been a catalyst for us, of course; he's one of the best players in the world right now. The fact that we don't have him with us doesn't help."
Neither does it help that Jenkins, the one Welshman fully armed with the technical know-how, the man-management skills, the gravitas and the all-embracing wisdom to make a decent fist of the top job, should feel so alienated from a hierarchy who ought to be falling over themselves to appoint him. But then, genuine men of the people rarely sit easily alongside men of privilege, however gifted they may be. Carwyn James discovered that much, and where Carwyn went, Gareth Jenkins seems destined to follow.Reuse content