Welsh fall prey to paranoia after the pain of Valentine's Day jilting

Mike Ruddock's exit has restored the Principality's natural cynicism a year before game's showpiece event. James Corrigan reports
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The Independent Online

Wales' horrified gasp quickly turned into a resigned shrug yesterday as the news of Mike Ruddock's departure was absorbed. One thing the Principality has learnt to expect is the unexpected. After all, Welsh rugby can never be accused of being boring - on or off the pitch.

But, whatever they were saying and however valiantly they tried to laugh it all off, this particular jilting on Valentine's Day will hurt far longer than your average Shane Williams knock-on behind his own try-line.

For in the dreamy days following last year's Grand Slam, Ruddock has taken on a Messianic quality. The softly spoken coach had transporting them back to the Seventies way before the BBC had ever thought about it with Life on Mars. Although these wide-eyed time travellers had never, ever sought to leave this land of past glories.

Now the present day has returned with one almighty banging of the door and cynicism is back to being the Welsh rugby fan's natural state. The whispers of "player power", of "blazer power", of petty contract bickerings, of snake-eyed executives wielding Machiavellian axes, of would-be replacements operating shamelessly in the shadows, have only fed the paranoia that the bad days are here again. Whether any of these rumours have any relevance to fact does not really matter to the bitter fans and nor does Scott Johnson's exhortation yesterday that "Mike's 'personal reasons' may be unbelievable to outsiders, but they don't see the demands of this job".

But maybe those words should be heeded, as next to the England football manager there is not a more scrutinised position in all of British international sport and, just as Kevin Keegan bowed under the weight of expectancy in mid-tournament, so Ruddock might have run out of places to hide in his goldfish bowl. The difference is that this coach had hitherto been successful. And that is what makes it all the more mystifying.

So no wonder the message boards will carry on searching for a more edifying explanation as they all but write off a Six Nations season that had seemed back on track with Sunday's victory over Scotland and no wonder the Welsh Rugby Union will be held up for yet more parody. That venerable institution has had some embarrassing situations before but perhaps none as red-faced as this.

In reality, though, the WRU's legendary bunglings did not start with this set of incumbents, or anything like it. All too recently they suffered "Grannygate", of course, when a few of Graham Henry's Antipodeans were revealed to have as much Welsh ancestry as Skippy, and then there was that missed plane to a summer tour Down Under when the entire national squad staged a sit-in at an M4 service station over a "win-bonus dispute".

All very embarrassing, but to lose a coach in the middle of the Six Nations, not 12 months after they had won the Grand Slam and only a year before a World Cup? This is a first, isn't it? Well, yes and no. Never has a "winner" gone so quickly and unexpectedly, but it has become something of a tradition for Wales either to get rid of or, more pointedly, lose their main man in the run-up to the World Cup. In fact, only once before - Tony Gray at the very first staging in 1987 - has the coach had more than a year to prepare for the biggest battle.

So has all this merely been business as usual then? That was the pervading feeling in the Principality yesterday. The signs reading "Wanted: One Great Redeemer" are up once more and blowing forlornly in the Valleys air.