Ireland could play O’Gara and Sexton
Former Wales maverick Mark Ring feels Leinster man should fill inside-centre role with ROG pulling strings
Barry John could spot a gap the size of a mouse hole. So when he was sitting outside the Old Arcade pub in Cardiff's city centre, he could hardly miss the figure of Mark Ring, one of the maverick successors to John churned out by the famed Welsh fly-half factory.
"Hey Ringo!" the King called out to the Clown Prince. "Guess what happened to me once? I dropped a f*****g ball in training!"
Men such as these don't cry. So they laughed. Laughed so much. Then they cried. Mark Ring won't go to the Millennium Stadium today. "I generally just watch it on the telly with a few of the lads," he says morosely. All has changed utterly in the once proud Principality.
Ireland's Mike Ross told us that his first memory of Wales was the great Pontypool front-row of Faulkner, Windsor and Price, who played together for 18 successive Tests and even had a ballad composed for them.
Now? Cross Keys, the team Ring now coaches, would "probably smash up their front-row now. Sad reflection, isn't it?" Another ancient certainty ruthlessly chopped down.
Ring's own reflections are tinged with regret. He remembers something else Barry John told him that day. "All my life I ran away from the opposition, but now all I see are players running into them!"
And so Ring will watch today's game on the TV, shuddering mournfully each time each side's inside-centres smash into contact, nodding sagely at every butchered turnover, shrugging ruefully when hustle and muscle trump precision and vision.
"The whole game is crying out for change," protests the 48-year-old enigmatic genius, who won 32 caps for Wales, albeit the majority at centre or full-back. For his part, the culprits are easy to spot.
"We've got the rugby league coaches. They've come in -- in fairness they were more professional than we were initially. But such is that professionalism, they've developed from defence coaching to being adhered to in terms of the whole game-plan. And the game is becoming more and more like rugby league because of it.
"I'm a traditionalist. There's still a place for Shane Williams and still a place for James Hook as a 12. I want to have a first and second five-eighth, rather than out-half, inside-centre.
"I played with Scott Gibbs as a centre before he got on the weights and went smash, smash, smash. And he became a massive influence on people because he became an idol because of the '97 Lions.
"So from the age of 11, players are listening to coaches who over-structure the game, with centres going smash and fly-halves never touching the ball."
Ring will always stir debate. Sparky on the pitch, he once tried a back-heeled conversion to silence a troublesome heckler. His life has been speckled by tragedy -- the death of a four-day-old baby daughter affected him deeply.
Mostly, it has been sprinkled with controversy -- from a court appearance for theft to claiming he was offered a bribe to throw a Five Nations game against Ireland, from being accused of ripping off Pontypool to touring South Africa as part of a World XV 'rebel' team for cash in the late 80s. Oh, and then there's the time he blew almost £8,000 in a casino. And then won it back. Ring's life renders Gavin Henson as controversial as Daniel O'Donnell.
A colourful figure, a black and white world often had difficulty assimilating Ring's maverick qualities. Ring coached Old Crescent for a time but left two years ago when stuffiness clouded his vision.
"It didn't work out in the end," he recalls. "When I was there, it was enjoyable, I loved Ireland and Limerick. But sometimes you need to make decisions.
"I found it very, very difficult. Even though the team was crying out for something different and making plans to develop, they were starved of success and a lot of old-school guys felt threatened. There was a lot of talking in the dark corners of the bar. There was no sense of reality about the place."
Everywhere he looks in modern rugby, apart from perhaps in the Antipodes, he sees a similar picture.
He'd prefer to see two out-halves -- the first and second five-eighth option as perfected by Grant Fox and Warwick Taylor for the All Blacks in the 80s.
The best out-halves -- Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara, in his view -- are the best controllers of the game. Then it's a case of getting the talent around them -- hence Hook at inside centre.
And if it means playing Jonathan Sexton at inside-centre ... well, why not?
"Ultimately the fly-half has to be the best player with the overall control," he says. "That's why I'd pick Stephen Jones at fly-half. I was a fly-half and Bleddyn Bowen was a fly-half, but we could easily move to 12. And 12 is the hardest position on the field to play, yet we're making it into the easiest by just crashing players into walls.
"It's an option to play Sexton as well. Gordon D'Arcy's not a second five-eighth, he's a very up and down guy, takes it into contact, nothing else really.
"O'Gara essentially is the guy who's best at controlling things and Sexton, to my mind, is becoming very predictable. Everyone can see from broken play he skips from left to right, pops to O'Driscoll, goes on a loop and O'Driscoll tries to use this deft touch.
"It's been successful, but Christ everyone has seen it now and sides are knocking them into next week. You can't judge him on bits of plays like that, it has to be on the all-round game and that's why O'Gara is clear out in front in my mind for the 10 slot."
He fancies Ireland for today's clash, leading from the front.
"Wales are missing Adam Jones and if Ireland's hooker and loose-head can attack, get Wales on the back foot, the crowd will be screaming for Wales to spin the ball. Gatland has succumbed to public pressure by playing Hook and Wales could end up playing too much behind the advantage line."
The man who patented the 'knee chip' doesn't expect much rugby to enthuse about, though.
"I love the intrigue of it all. I'm just frustrated by the lack of ability and general game understanding. Watch the All Blacks. They can start a set-piece on the left, after one or two phases they'll work the ball across to the opposite side.
"You can guarantee the opposition will run straight back in their sections defensively. The All Blacks will flood the breakdown, get a wing around the corner, they'll make a gain-line bust, pop it back, pick and go, busting that 15-metre channel.
"Suddenly, with all the defenders scrambling back into that channel, the All Blacks will just shift the play at their own pace. Then look at Wales: they go side to side all day without any direction, it's absolutely ludicrous.
"I think some of the coaches' knowledge of the modern game has to be called into question."
On the day he met Barry John, he continued cycling with his five-year-old to soccer training. He stopped to watch an U-11s rugby session.
"Line-out, off the top, scrum-half to fly-half, inside-centre crash into the tackle bag," he remembers. "No 8 picks up, smashes into tackle bag. Then more forwards. Then set-pieces.
"I'm watching this for 15 minutes and the wingers and fly-half are running around and haven't even touched the ball. 'Come on Luca', I says, 'on your bike and get out of here before the match starts!'"