Why the WRU forced Ruddock to walk away

Leaked Union document claims players' fears over coach's 'weakness' meant he had to go
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The Independent Online

Mike Ruddock was not forced to resign as Wales coach because of "player power". According to the Welsh Rugby Union, the reverse is true: the players felt they were being given too much authority and the coach was "too weak and abdicating his responsibility".

The squad made it clear they wanted more leadership from Ruddock. They did not want him to leave but they wanted him to "front up". Documents obtained by The Independent on Sunday indicate why the board of the WRU, after listening to a presentation by Ruddock last Tuesday, gave their unanimous support to Steve Lewis, the chief executive.

Ruddock resigned on Valentine's Day, citing "family reasons", his contract still up in the air. Scott Johnson, the skills coach, was appointed to take over as head coach for the rest of the Six Nations, beginning with Wales's meeting with Ireland in Dublin today.

"The board received a chronological report of the process involved in negotiations of Mike Ruddock's contract which were not completed," David Pickering, the chairman of the WRU, said. "The board unanimously supports the actions of its executive staff and in particular Steve Lewis." He added that they discounted speculation that senior players had met Lewis to discuss Ruddock's position prior to his resignation. There was a meeting but, say the WRU, on the agenda was the question of players' insurance.

Last July Ruddock and Lewis shook hands on a new £200,000- a-year contract which would leave the coach in charge for the World Cup next year, claim the Union. There were occasions when Ruddock did not see eye to eye with Johnson, and by October the coach's legal advisers were telling him to "get rid" of Johnson. It is understood that Lewis assured Ruddock that if this is what he wanted he would have his backing. Ruddock, however, would have to inform the players and the public, and this he refused to do.

On 15 November, after Wales had lost to New Zealand and came close to losing to Fiji, Ruddock said he had areas of concern and that, with his family in mind, it was time to consider his options. Less than a fortnight later, after Wales had beaten Australia, Ruddock said that although there were a few "structural issues" to be resolved, he had had a change of heart and wanted to commit to the new contract.

The WRU claim that 11 days before the start of the Six Nations the contract was returned by Ruddock's solicitors with a number of handwritten amendments, most of which were unacceptable to the Union. One was that when he was not required for training he could work from home. The WRU decided to put the matter on hold until after the Six Nations.

They also claim that in February, after Wales had lost to England, Ruddock's solicitors informed the WRU that they could "stick the coaching job" and that Ruddock would be quitting in March. Ruddock himself said he was simply looking for other offers in case a final agreement was not reached. On 14 February the coach rang the Western Mail in Cardiff to help him prepare a press release announcing his intention to retire at the end of the Six Nations. Lewis asked him to reconsider. Ruddock said it had been a tough decision but he was putting his family first. There were other issues and he was aware Lewis had met with the senior players.

According to the WRU, Ruddock refused to tell the squad of his decision. "His exit strategy put us in an untenable position," said an insider. "He'd already informed a newspaper and the best course of action was to relieve Mike of his duties immediately."

The rest, as they say, is hysteria. Gareth Thomas, the captain, appeared on a now infamous programme on BBC Wales wearing a Motorhead T-shirt, after which he complained of a severe migraine. It turned out he had a damaged artery in his neck, and his Test career may be over. The players say the way he has been treated is "disgraceful".

Richard Burton, who may be an authority on such matters, said that if you put 100 Welshmen in a room which had 30 doors they would all head for the one marked "self-destruct". For 100 Welshmen read Welsh rugby, although the players see it differently. They are bemused and angered by the storm that has engulfed them and cannot see what all the fuss is about. Ruddock resigned, Johnson has taken over, end of story. Except, of course, that it isn't.

It was no secret that the players had a lot of time for Johnson, but it wasn't until they waxed lyrical about their new leader that the depth of feeling became apparent. They do not just like Johnson - they worship the ground he floats on. As a Newport-Gwent Dragon, Ian Gough played for Ruddock when he was their coach. Isn't he an honourable man and an experienced coach? "He was good on the guitar." Gough added: "What's happened will wash over us. We've been through things like this before." Not quite. Nobody had ever lost a coach within 12 months of winning a Grand Slam.

The players had been briefed to give the Ruddock affair a wide berth. However, invited to comment on Johnson, Gough - and the others were no different - was in his element. "He's a complete maverick and has opened our eyes. His understanding of the game is absolute. It's wonderful to be around him. All the boys love being coached by him. We hang on his every word. We'll all be delighted if he stays."

Johnson, who has family issues of his own in his native Sydney, says he prefers old South Wales to New South Wales. He may or may not be leaving, but he has been saying that for a year or more. Lewis said that Johnson was "desperate" for Ruddock's job. "Mate, do I look like Steve Lewis? There has been no duplicity. I'm filling a breach. A river without banks is a puddle. If somebody else came along I'd be happy to be No 2." And in the meantime it's Ireland. "Tough times breed tough men, and we're taking a tough team to Dublin to play tough rugby."