Tuesday 23 May 2017

Tales of the unexpected

Mike Ruddock is relishing his new role in helping to shape Ireland's future, says Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Mike Ruddock likes to tell a story about preparing for the unexpected. It dates back to 2005, his first season in charge of Wales and a campaign that would end spectacularly with them winning their first Grand Slam since 1978.

The scene was the Stadio Flaminio in Rome, Wales' second game in the tournament. Already passions were running high back home for they had beaten England first up in Cardiff with the last kick of the game. And while they had been humbled in Rome two years previously, great things were expected. Sure enough, in the first half they rode out a storm and were looking good for two from two.

Ruddock hopped out of his seat just before the break and skipped down the steps to be in the changing room when the team came in. En route he was struck by how smart and impressive the Italian police looked, with their perfectly creased uniforms and super shiny buckles and boots. He nodded to two of them guarding the doors at the end of the stairwell. They nodded back, and opened the doors for him. He stepped through them. And into the street.

He admits that the bit about the street is embellished. In fact, he had found himself in an empty corridor, but it was no exaggeration that he had to bang on the doors for a while and explain who he was in order to get back in.

"The guys were in the dressing room wondering where the coach had got to. I just said: 'Guys, you did so well in that first half, I just wanted to give you longer to reflect on it. Now get out there and do the same.'"

Less than a year later, the WRU had done the same trick with the doors of the Millennium Stadium. Having jerked him round over his contract and humiliated him for no good reason, Ruddock reversed with a gold medal for dignity and the good wishes of Welsh rugby fans. And licked his wounds.

"Yeah, a little bit," he says. "It definitely cut a bit raw. The politics and all that was something I hadn't experienced before. It took a while to be able to move on."

From that spectacular fall he came to earth in the ultra-glam surrounds of Mumbles, a small Swansea club who ply their trade in the Welsh Division 3 South West. An old mate, Huw 'Tubby' Rees, had knocked on his door one day and dragged him out to play.

"We became the heaviest coaching team in Welsh rugby," Ruddock says. "We both suffered from CFD -- compulsive fridge disorder. So we got stuck into that stuff and it was good because I was a bit raw and down in the dumps and it brought me back. The boys played really well. We got promoted and it gave me back a love of rugby again."

After that there were three seasons in the English Premiership with Worcester. He inherited them just after they had come up from the Championship and parted company with them just after they went back there, last May. It would be unfair to characterise his time there as an endless battle against the big spenders because Worcester threw some money at it too. He didn't direct the cash flow however, and had they got the goal-kicker they wanted, they would have won a fair few games they lost.

"Yeah but I really enjoyed it," he says. "The Premiership is tough. Really tough. It's an incredible tournament where there's no rotation of international players -- it's like European Cup rugby every week. It would have been more enjoyable if we won more games but I actually think we were a more consistent side in terms of our ability to sustain a competitive level of rugby week in, week out."

Whatever, he reckons he is better for the experience. And he was keen to get back to Dublin, where his son Rhys was born (Ciaran was born in Wales), it's his wife Bernie's hometown, and where he has so much positive history. "We were desperately missing seeing the boys playing rugby. And there was a lifestyle thing as well: I'm 51 now and getting older and being around family and friends is really important. When this opportunity came up, I felt it was one I should take."

That makes him sound old but he is half that age in his head, and there is an enthusiasm about Mike Ruddock that is infectious. He'll need it, for it's a steep climb ahead. Now that he has the cardboard boxes unpacked and his missus and daughter settled happily in school; now that he has touched base with all the coaches who will have an influence on his under 20s; now that has seen the under 20 interpro series which wrapped up this weekend, he can survey the scene.

It's a challenging landscape, best illustrated by how Ireland fare when they get to the Junior World Championship, which is the world cup for this age grade. The reality is that we don't box in the same division as the heavyweights, less so than even our senior team, who at least have a history of getting to quarter-finals more often than not.

Only in the last two years have the IRFU and the schools, who still produce the bulk of our players, got onto the same page about how our young players need to be developed. They are not yet on the same paragraph, however, for it works better in some provinces than others -- Leinster are the brand leaders -- and still we have a spaghetti junction of teams around the under 18 and under 19 level between schools and clubs when it so badly needs to be rationalised.

Heaps of caps and ties are handed out to gung-ho young players at this level, the majority of whom have no chance of making a career in the game. Why bother?

Do England for example, with its vast numbers and resources, separate and divide and multiply at this level? Rob Andrew has been their elite director of rugby for four years now, and he sounds almost surprised when you mention the topic.

"We had that political debate here three or four years ago, actually when Conor O'Shea was in charge of the Academy system," he says. "What we call the elite department -- basically professional rugby -- now completely control the under 18 programme. So we don't differentiate between clubs and schools at the elite end -- we just pick the best players and develop them."

That includes kids in the traditional private schools, as well as those outside that system but who are tied to clubs through an apprenticeship programme in their sixth form, and those who are already out of school. That's an army of young talent from which the best, and most suitable for pro rugby, are picked. Their under 18s have lost one game in three years. Their under 20s are not too shabby either.

"The relevance of the under 20 game to the England senior side is very, very significant," says Andrew. "One of the things we've focused on more than anything in the time I've been here is the under 18 and under 20 programmes. We have invested more and more time and money into the development of the base of what we call the elite pyramid. I believe we've upped our game at this level."

So can Ireland make a meaningful change at this grade? Well, Ruddock is not an evangelist. He is a coach, through and through, and his suitability for it jumps out of his cv. From Bective to Leinster, when they were in the ramshackle early days, through Ebbw Vale and the Dragons, Ireland A and Wales A, and the Wales senior side, and of course Mumbles, he has coached because he loves coaching. "Even at Mumbles, you were still against coaches who had the same type of players and the same amount of time, so it's all relevant."

Consider, however, that Ruddock would not have got the Ireland job were he not politically acceptable in Lansdowne Road, and maybe there is more potential than just running the squad. He is both liked and respected by people with power in Ireland. And his opinion about the system will be listened to as much as his opinion about the team itself. His job with the union is part-time, and working with Castleknock College will pad out his pay cheque, but he gives off the clear impression that he wants to stay long-term. Both his boys are in the Leinster system and Rhys has the unique distinction of globetrotting from the Junior World Championship to the Ireland tour last June. And not looking out of place.

"It was awesome, it really was -- first of all to see him selected," he says. "One half of him was very excited and the other was worried not so much about the step up but more the amount of travel and the amount of time he'd have to bed in with the boys, making sure he knew all the calls and all the plays to make sure he gave a reasonable account of himself. When he got over there he seemed to get into it really well."

Rhys was the exception, not the rule. Ireland under 20s will be doing well to have four players in provincial senior squads this season, and probably 11 in total will be full-time on academy books. That's progress from four years ago, but we're chasing the pack on this one. The shift to play-offs in the Magners League, and the arrival of the Italians, will make for more games and more opportunities for young Irish players, and maybe some of these will fall to under 20s for whom the experience will be invaluable.

In the meantime, the new coach reckons he needs to tune in to what the 19- and 20-year-olds of today talk about and listen to, so that he might better be able to communicate with them. To that end, his sons call round to the new Ruddock home every night and lighten the load in the fridge. The old man reckons the novelty of having the boys around will wear off soon, and the quid pro quo -- their advice on what to say to people of their generation -- might be a wind-up.

He'll be fine. It's not every team gets a Grand Slam coach with such a bank of experience. For starters he can share with them some tales of the unexpected.

Sunday Independent

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