When Shaun Edwards was a young scrumhalf playing rugby league for Wigan and Britain, he was thinking about rugby union. And when Edwards was still at the height of his player career, he was thinking about coaching.
Edwards’ paradoxical career continues as the defense coach of a Welsh rugby team which is winning fans for its attack, and as an Englishman assisting Wales at the Rugby World Cup under a head coach who is a New Zealander.
For all those apparent inconsistencies, Edwards is a key member of the Wales’ coaching team at the tournament, having previously helped head coach Warren Gatland guide Wasps to the English Rugby Union championship.
Noted for his willingness to apply skills learned from other sports to rugby union, Edwards has constructed a tight Welsh defense which has conceded only four tries in five matches at the tournament so far. The hub of that defense has been the ferocious tackling of the young looseforward trio of Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau.
“There’s a lot of things that build up into a defensive system ... understanding your roles, courage, fitness,” Edwards said. “There’s a million different components but I think the thing that is sticking out at the moment is the quality of our tackling, which is something which comes with hard work (and) obviously a little bit of coaching.
“I think there’s more of an emphasis in the game because people realize how important defense is nowadays and when you’ve got a backrow like we have what are they? 24, 23 and 20 it can’t be much fun carrying the ball against them, put it that way.”
Edwards said the youth of the Welsh players was a factor in that defense, bringing a fearlessness and a lack of inhibition.
“They don’t have a history of past defeats against certain teams,” Edwards said. “That would be the biggest advantage, so they don’t bring any sorts of doubts in the head, sort of ‘we lost to them two or three years ago.’ Half of our boys were still at school two or three years ago.”
Edwards said that defense would need to be at its best when Wales plays France in a World Cup semifinal on Saturday. Wales had to ensure, first and foremost, that it gave the dangerous French attack no easy points.
“I think what’s definitely been part of our problem against France in the past is that we’ve harmed ourselves,” he said. “In 2009 or 2010 we gave two interceptions against them, the game in Paris we had a charge down which was pivotal in the game. So first and foremost we have to make sure that if France do get points against us, they have to earn them.
“We don’t want to hurt ourselves. If France are good enough to get points, well maybe so, but defensively we’re determined to keep that to an absolute minimum.”
Edwards takes particular pleasure in the improvement of the Wales team throughout the World Cup. Given only an even chance of progressing to the knockout round from the tournament’s hardest pool, the Welsh qualified with only a loss to world champion South Africa by one point. Then they ousted Ireland in the quarterfinals.
“What we’ve tried to do throughout the competition is improve the quality of the game,” he said. “This game will be no different.
“No doubt we will have to be even more accurate in this game and we will have to lift our intensity because it’s a semifinal now.
“All I can say is they’ve come together and in quite a short space of time they’ve improved rapidly and it’s not been an accident that they’ve improved. It’s been down to hard work, strength of character, not a little skill and a lot of work on the training paddock.”
Those qualities possibly epitomize Edwards’ coaching approach. He comes from the old school that believes there is no gain without pain. His early skills as a coach were nurtured in rugby league but he always had an eye on rugby union.
“I always studied rugby union, yes,” Edwards said. “My mother she’s not clairvoyant, but she’s a pretty smart lady she always said to me it’s important to study both games because she felt one day I would become a rugby union coach.
“Even when I was 21 I was thinking of coaching. I always wrote notes down, quotes I got, tactics mostly in rugby league but I also studied rugby union. I always wanted to become a coach one day like most halfbacks. I was a student of the game of rugby and I like to think I still am that.”
Keywords: Rugby World Cup