A television commentator, describing the final stages of a hard-fought Olympic 10,000 metres final, remarked, he thought cleverly: "The race has now developed into a duel between the three of them."
In any race there is only one winner, although that term must be used with some caution when considering who will emerge to take up the perilous job of coaching Wales.
Steve Hansen has been propelled into the hot seat, but only in a caretaker capacity until the end of the Six Nations' Championship. The two other characters featuring in the long-term "duel" for the most uncomfortable coaching position in world rugby, are – surprise, surprise – both Welshmen, and both hugely popular with the demanding Welsh rugby public.
Popular, that is, until either Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli or Mike Ruddock, now of Ebbw Vale, take on the high-profile and unscrupulously exposed role of national team coach.
The Welsh Rugby Union, in moving with uncharacteristic alacrity following the débâcle at Lansdowne Road, nipped in the bud what would have been a monumental public debate. The coach has always been a sitting target, and although Graham Henry is a slick operator with a sharp mind, the salary of £250,000 was his Achilles heel. It is 15 times the average wage in Wales, and in a country riddled with petty jealousies and tribalism, failure to justify it could not be stomached.
The power of public pressure should not be underestimated – you ignore it at your peril. Hansen will doubtless take heed, and he has quickly becomefamiliar with the fluctuating moods of a desperate rugby nation.
Jenkins and Ruddock came face to face on Friday evening at Eugene Cross Park, as Ebbw Vale hosted the red-hot favourites, Llanelli, in the Welsh-Scottish League. The match was crucial to both clubs for differing reasons, but the attention was focused most sharply on the coaches.
On a spiteful evening of driving rain and howling winds, great credit should be afforded to both sides for producing a match at all, let alone an exhibition that, though it might not have enthralled the casual spectator, displayed the passion, commitment, control and defensive qualities so glaringly absent in Dublin last Sunday.
Llanelli, with the first use of the strong wind, built up a 13-3 advantage, including a Wayne Procter charge-down of an attempted clearance kick. Their excellent fly-half Gareth Bowen, who had only arrived at Heathrow at 7am following an emergency dash home from New Zealand, added the angled conversion, and succeeded with three other penalties to seal an impressive 16-3 victory. Gareth Cull scored Ebbw's solitary penalty in the first half.
Coaches these days tend to be assessed by their technical know-how, and their management speak, sometimes referred to more honestly as bullshit. You get none of that from Gareth Jenkins, just plain rugby talk. What he excels at is planning and plotting the downfall of the next opponent, and communicating his strategy effectively to his charges. This he clearly demonstrated in comfortably taking the scalps of Leicester and Bath in recent European clashes.
This latest victory was similar, with the under-strength visitors showing tactical nous by carrying the ball through David Hodges, who achieved the unthinkable in filling Scott Quinnell's boots. As Jenkins, a great disciple of open and fluid play, confessed afterwards: "Tonight was not the night when wingers have the ball." They simply kept possession, induced repeated transgressions from Ebbw Vale and were never seriously challenged.
Ruddock has less quality to juggle with, but he is also a strong candidate for national service. His resources are limited, but he wages a worthy war with an inferior playing staff against all and sundry, and his broader experience at Swansea, Leinster and with Wales A – though his cause there was not helped by their mauling in Ireland last Saturday – enhances his challenge. He also stressed before Friday's match that it needs a Welshman to stand in front of a Welsh team and deliver that all-important and impassioned plea for more effort, more commitment and more hwyl.
Hansen has first bite of the cherry, but do not be surprised if in the long run there is a genuine duel between two fervent and passionate Welshmen.Reuse content