Wales players close ranks on Ruddock exit

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One of the classic exercises in shutting the stable door after the departure of its inhabitant was gathering momentum in Wales yesterday as a battalion of Grand Slam-winning players, headed by the captain, Gareth Thomas, and his deputy Michael Owen, lined up to lavish praise on Mike Ruddock, who resigned as national coach on Tuesday night. If, as is widely assumed, Ruddock's demise was the result of a deteriorating relationship with his élite squad, there was more than a whiff of the weasel about some of the words spoken by the main protagonists.

According to Thomas, said by many to have fallen out with Ruddock over a number of issues, the Test players have been "devastated" by this week's developments, which saw the coach's tenure end less than a year after he presided over a first Welsh Slam in more than a quarter of a century. "I respect Mike as a man and as a coach," the captain commented. "He is a brilliant coach and a brilliant person who played a vital part in the Grand Slam last year. We all now support him and his decision and wish him well in whatever he decides to do in the future."

Senior Welsh Rugby Union officials moved heaven and earth to minimise the impact of an upheaval that threatens to destabilise their team's Six Nations Championship campaign, as did Ruddock himself. Asked in a BBC radio interview if player power had been behind his decision, Ruddock said: " Not as far as I'm concerned. I have discussed it with [the] players at length and that wasn't the case."

Steve Lewis, the chief executive, insisted he had no knowledge of any conflict between Ruddock and his players and stuck rigidly to a party line that limited the reasons for the resignation to "family pressures" . However, Lewis could not explain why, if the coach's departure was for entirely innocent reasons, he was asked to stand down with immediate effect, rather than at the end of the current tournament, which was Ruddock's clear preference.

Wisely, the caretaker coach, Scott Johnson, bobbed and weaved his way past questions about relationships within the squad. "It takes a brave man to make a tough decision, and you can only take people at their word," said the Australian, when questioned about Ruddock's motives.

"This is not a job I coveted. It has landed on my lap for a three-game period, and I feel it appropriate for me to do it for that tenure. Had I not taken the job in this period it would have been inappropriate for the team. It is the right thing right at the moment."

Johnson, a highly popular figure with Thomas and the overwhelming majority of the Test players, will work alongside Clive Griffiths, already in position as defence coach, and the former Llanelli hooker Robin McBryde, who has been called in to work with the forwards. All things being equal, the WRU hierarchy would like Johnson to agree to extend his contract to the end of the 2007 World Cup campaign. However, Johnson has complex issues relating to family matters back home, and there is no guarantee that he will commit to a further stay in Wales, especially as the new Wallaby coach, John Connolly, is keen on his services as a top-quality motivator.

"Just like Mike Ruddock, my decision will be based on family. I am fully appreciative of Mike's position, because I have similar concerns in my life," Johnson said. "I am not going to cast aspersions or doubts on anything a person says in regard to that."

At present, all the Welsh eggs are in the Johnson basket; indeed, they are likely to offer him a king's ransom to stay, just as they offered the celebrated New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, the equivalent of the Royal Mint to take over an ailing team in the late 1990s. Should Johnson head home, however, the number of obvious successors will be limited.

Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli Scarlets, the people's choice last time, is unlikely to be a runner on this occasion. David Young of Cardiff Blues and Paul Turner of Newport Gwent Dragons do not have the track record of achievement to demand serious consideration. Of the Wales-based coaches, only Lyn Jones of the Ospreys, the Celtic League champions, rates so much as an interview. A man-manager good enough to keep the likes of the celebrity centre Gavin Henson in train, he is by some distance the strongest candidate from the regional teams.

And outside of Wales? Phil Davies of Leeds might be a contender, as might Mark Evans of Harlequins, who made a strong impression on the WRU before losing out to Ruddock.