Ruddock family ties keep Ireland and Wales connected
Mike Ruddock, father of Rhys and Ciarán, is waiting for the day when families can reunite
Former Lansdowne head coach Mike Ruddock. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
The Ruddocks’ Celtic union was formed, naturally enough, over pints after Welsh choir practice in Dublin.
The Irish bloodlines go deeper than you might presume. And the Welsh for that matter. Mike Ruddock married into the family of a Newport man named Terry Wymer who was exiled in Templeogue for the very same reason that snagged the former Leinster and Wales coach.
“I went to watch the Dublin Welsh choir,” he remembers of a seminal rugby tour during the 1980s. “Terry was singing. I was chatting to him afterwards when Bernie his daughter came to pick him up and take him home. I explained that might not be possible on this particular night. That he might be catching a taxi. She accepted my line gracefully. I got away with that one.
Mike and Bernie are back living in Swansea, as the 61-year-old attempts to revive the Ospreys while the boys, Ciarán and Rhys, are ensconced in Ireland camp outside Maynooth
“When we got married years later, Terry said, ‘I don’t feel like I have lost a daughter, I feel like I have gained a ticket in the west stand.’ So I was under pressure straight away.”
Family has never felt so vital during these incomparable days, weeks, months. Legally, they are most people’s only human contact. The Ruddocks have not been so fortunate. Like far too many parents around the world, Mike’s only glimpse of his youngest son, Rhys, was from 15 paces across the Liberty Stadium car park last November.
Ruddock junior had just bullied the club that had him on their books as a teenager and currently employs his old man.
Nowadays, Mike and Bernie are back living in Swansea, as the 61-year-old attempts to revive the Ospreys while the boys, Ciarán and Rhys, are ensconced in Ireland camp outside Maynooth, beavering away as conditioning coach and a menacing backrow contender.
From the valley lilt alone, it is easy to brand Mike Ruddock as pure Welsh, but his mother, Peg Carroll, left Co Clare as a teenager before marrying an RAF officer named Vernon Ruddock. Bernadette’s mother, Mary, left Dublin to study nursing and met Terry on holiday in Torquay before returning home via Belfast.
The next generation embraced the nomadic coach’s lifestyle, shifting between Swansea and Dublin, as the longevity of Mike’s career revolved around three phone calls, spanning 40 years, from a man named Mike James.
The third call came in December 2019 when the Ospreys chairman turned to a reliable old friend after parting ways with Allen Clarke.
“It was Mike who got me to Swansea as a player,” Ruddock remembers last week. “I was playing up in the Welsh valleys for an unfashionable club called Tredegar. I was doing well up there, scoring lots of tries, and Mike James came to watch a game and invited me to go west. In those days it was a 100-mile round trip.”
That worked out well until 1985 when the bruising blindside (sound familiar?) was forced to retire aged 26, having been knocked off a ladder by a passing lorry while working as an electricity linesman. A fractured skull, three compressed vertebrae and permanent deafness in one ear altered his fate forever.
“After my industrial accident I started coaching at local level with Blaina RFC and then Cross Keys before I went to Bective Rangers for a year.”
That’s when Terry Wymer’s daughter and the big Welsh man added a future Ireland flanker to their growing clan.
“That’s also when Mike James rang me for a second time and asked would I come to Swansea because they were struggling. We won the league the following season. I did seven years there before going to coach Leinster.”
That was 1997 and professionalism was struggling to find its feet in Donnybrook. Rhys was seven, Ciarán 14 months older. By 2000 they were back home in Wales as their Dad took up coaching Ebbw Vale.
This period saw a seismic shift in Welsh rugby that has never properly settled as regions were moulded into unholy unions like Newport Gwent Dragons.
“You might remember the politics around it all. Newport fans didn’t want to support the team unless they could keep their name and in the valley fans didn’t want to travel to Newport because, well, it was Newport!
“Considering all that was going on we did brilliantly with the season we ended up having. We were tipped to be the worst region in 2004 but we almost won the Celtic League. On the last Saturday at half-time if you had stopped the clock we had it won. Unfortunately, we lost to Leinster in the second half and ended up third.”
The beautiful thing about the Grand Slam was it was so unexpected. Two years earlier Wales were whitewashed. It was tough to see Wales struggling
Aptly, following a moment’s silence for Mick Doyle, a Lansdowne Road attendance of 2,520 were served up 12 tries.
“We had a great team and I was happy there.”
But the Dragons’ dramatic progress coincided with Steve Hansen heading home to New Zealand to begin a 15-year stint coaching the All Blacks. So began the Welsh version of papal transition. Out of conclave came one name as the 45-year-old Mike Ruddock was invited to sip from an irresistible chalice.
Momentum is everything in the Six Nations and, after the perma-tanned Gavin Henson uttered the immortal line – “start celebrating” – before nailing a penalty to down England, Ruddock’s Wales never looked back. A stunning brace by Martyn Williams in Paris teed up a raucous weekend in Cardiff with the Irish out to repeat the Triple Crown, only to be wiped out by a tsunami of passion and freewheelin’ rugby as Wales grasped their first slam since 1978.
“The beautiful thing about the Grand Slam was it was so unexpected,” says Mike. “Two years earlier Wales were whitewashed. I was doing the A team that year. It was tough to see Wales struggling.
“Steve Hansen had put a lot of work in to turn it around, but when the job came up I didn’t apply for it. At the last minute I was asked to reconsider and put my name in the hat.
“I got the job. Given that Wales had not been successful for the last few years I just wanted to see an improvement. The first Grand Slam in 27 years was unbelievable. It was a great day for the nation.”
The ultimate gig for any Welsh boy proved short-lived due to a well-worn story of senior players conspiring behind Ruddock’s back. Two months after receiving an OBE in the 2006 new year’s honours list, he felt obliged to resign in the middle of the Six Nations, a mere 48 hours after beating Scotland.
The coach went back to his roots, helping Mumbles RFC to the division three South Wales title before Worcester Warriors temporarily interrupted his criss-crossing of the Irish Sea. However, by 2010 Mike was coaching the Ireland under-20s and reviving several professional careers at Lansdowne FC.
“I remember Wayne calling from Llanelli and asking what I thought of Tadhg. ‘Sign him and I’ll tell you what he is like after.’”
On Pivac and the incoming test match, Ruddock understands the furnace heat that burns throughout the second season under a microscope of three million experts.
I am in my 60s and I’ve been out of pro rugby a while, so I didn’t want to go back in at the coalface. I haven’t got the fuel in the tank for that
“Probably a bit more pressure on Wales,” he deadpans. “Wayne Pivac has a tough act to follow Warren Gatland’s success with Shaun Edwards but, here, listen, Wayne is a very, very good coach. I coached against him when he was with Fiji and we only just beat them with a last-minute drop goal.
“What he did with the Scarlets was unreal. There is a change of style and that takes a little time but, knowing the pressure around the job in Wales, he needs some good fortune in the first game up.”
His own role at the Ospreys has since been upgraded to a three-year deal as development director.
“I am in my 60s and I’ve been out of pro rugby a while, so I didn’t want to go back in at the coalface. I haven’t got the fuel in the tank for that.
“They asked me to sort out various things behind the scenes to put the team in a better place. We’ve done that and I can help now with the development side, and the talent pool. I can enjoy doing that in my 60s.”
Disagreements over amalgamations continue to stymie the professional scene in Wales. If the South Africans’ imminent arrival to the Pro14 cannot motivate a more competitive, streamlined structure, nothing ever will.
“I certainly cannot speak for the other regions. All I do know is we have tried to base our vision and our strategic approach on the Leinster model.
“We have put some really good coaches in there and are now trying to build from the ground up. There is some really good talent, there has always been excellent young players in the area, and Toby Booth is not afraid to give the young fellas a chance.
“We are also looking to widen our talent pool by looking outside the region."
Will Hickey, the 6' 3" 107kg St Michael's College backrow, is set to join Ospreys this summer after the teenager was passed over by the Leinster system.
"We have a great partnership going with the university, a bit like the way so many players have come through UCD and Trinity and played for Leinster.
The recent AIL shutdown has also happened in the Welsh premiership and community game, and it threatens to eradicate late bloomers like Beirne.
“It will have an impact on the progress of certain players, that is for sure,” Ruddock agrees. “The conditioning side of it is the big concern. Access to proper weight training gives you more chance of staying up around the level. If you cannot, the gap will only widen.”
Typical of the man, we talk as long as the reporter desires, with Mike eventually mentioning the worrying yet necessary disconnect caused by all this enforced solitude.
“Last time we saw Ciarán was 10 months ago. We managed to see Rhys from a 15-metre distance in the car park when Leinster played Ospreys. We all had our masks on but at least we could look him in the eye and say hello.
“That’s been it really for nigh-on a year. As long as everyone is safe that is the key thing for us. That is all we can focus on, really.”
That and Sunday’s game.