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Shaun Edwards Exclusive: The Student speaks to a rugby legend

Shaun Edwards has been the defence coach for the French international rugby union team for the best part of a year. Life in France appears to have been treating him well. On the pitch, France narrowly missed out on the 2020 Six Nations title on points difference to England and he has a home World Cup to look forward to in 2023. 

The Student was fortunate enough to catch up with Mr Edwards as he prepares to face a Scotland team that is building in confidence and momentum on Sunday at BT Murrayfield in the newly-formed Autumn Nations Cup.

On his experience in France thus far, he remarked that it has been rather different to his two previous homes: Wigan and Chiswick. 

When asked about settling into life, he had nothing but praise for his reception, as he said that “the welcome we have had in France has been fantastic”. The French property system, however, has proved more troublesome. For anyone out there with aspirations of buying property in France, mark his words, “if anyone is going to buy property in France, make sure you are very good at filling out forms, because there a lot of forms to fill out”.

His exploits with the national side on the rugby pitch appear to have been far easier than securing real estate, as the switch from Welsh rugby — with whom he spent over a decade — to French rugby, has seemingly not been too taxing.

Has the culture shift on the pitch been a challenge? 

“Not really, no. The other coaches are very professional.” The technical side of training is monitored by GPS and training is adapted according to players’ needs as it is across most professional clubs. “It’s very similar really to how we practiced in Wales.”

But the nature of the sport that Edwards currently works in is a different beast to what he has ever experienced across his 20-year career as a rugby union coach and 17-year career prior to that as a rugby league player. The absence of fans in stadiums brings a different dimension to sport.

In terms of France’s reaction to rugby with no supporters, it has been quite positive. “We have won both our games,” Edwards said when asked about performances since the restart of rugby. “Probably, for some reason, you don’t feel quite as pressurised…you don’t hear 75,000 people screaming and shouting and encouraging and being disappointed.”

Like the rest of us, however, Edwards feels the pain of the loss of supporters. 

“Sport is not the same without spectators. We are all part of this thing called sport. Obviously, I am one of the coaches and the players are the players, but supporters are a really big part of it.”

Supporters watching from home may be relying on sport now more than ever for entertainment whilst coming to grips with extended lockdown measures across both the UK and France. The Autumn Nations Cup is an exciting prospect for rugby fans as the autumn international fixtures carry slightly more significance this time around with silverware on the line.

Edwards appreciates the importance of spectacle, but holds no punches in damning critics of teams such as England and South Africa who utilise their kicking game to great effect.

“South Africa have just won the World Cup in a certain way. Kicking the ball is a positive thing in a game of rugby. It is a lot easier to kick the ball up the pitch than it is to run it…to save energy for those vital moments, kicking is a massive part in the game…always has been, always will be.”

The conservation of energy is an important idea in the modern game with the physicality and intensity of how it is played. Edwards has come to question the directives that referees are given at the breakdown, particularly with jacklers having to “survive” the clear out at the ruck.

“It feels like (referees) are going back to ‘you have to survive the clean-out’ which, to me, is probably one of the worst ideas in rugby because the number of injuries to jacklers…it just stinks of injuries.”

It was particularly interesting to hear Edwards, a defence coach, admit that “most people come to a game of rugby to watch the attack. That’s totally understandable. But the great thing about rugby union is that it’s always a contest for the ball”.

In the upcoming fixture between Scotland and France, the contest for the ball at the breakdown and the firepower of the Scottish back-row is at the forefront of Edwards’ mind.

In particular, he has an eye on the threat of turnovers in the tackle, as he notes that “the Scottish team create a lot of mauls. Turning tackles into mauls, they are very good at that so we have to be careful of that in attack”.

“In defence, we have to stop their quick ball, which is easier said than done, because they are a very well-coached team.” That is certainly true with the players that Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has at his disposal; the likes of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson are regarded as some of the best back-rowers in world rugby at the breakdown.

He went on to praise the Scottish confidence in their defensive capabilities, suggesting that “now Scotland have a real belief in their defence. That’s a very dangerous team”. 

Edwards is all too aware of the threat that Scotland pose, as defeat to the Scots in Edinburgh during the Six Nations proved to be their only loss of the tournament and ultimately cost them the Grand Slam.

Although it is still three years away, the 2023 World Cup in France is clearly something that Edwards is keeping in mind. 

“A home World Cup would bring pressure onto any team.” As a coach he sees an important part of his role is to minimise this pressure. “We have to create an environment where all the players have to worry about is playing rugby. Nothing else.”

This is especially important for young players, of which the French squad boasts an abundance at the moment. There is a sense in the game these days that if you are good enough, you are old enough, and Edwards acknowledges the importance of selecting quality players whilst promoting the growth of young talent.

“If there is a choice between a player who is 30 and one who is 22, well the 22-year-old is definitely getting in there…that is a positive thing from our two bosses Fabien (Galthié) and Raph (Ibanez).”

The importance of quality trumps all though. This has certainly been the case with 31-year-old lock Bernard Le Roux, who Edwards sees as better than any other player in his position in France at the moment.

Edwards also retains an appreciation of the game at a student level. He has attended our very own Scottish Varsity match between Edinburgh and St Andrews to watch his son, James, play for Edinburgh on multiple occasions and has high praise for student rugby.

“What I love is the history of it. I used to be involved in the Oxford v Cambridge game and it was just a privilege to be involved. And it was just the same when I have been up on a number occasions to see my son James play for Edinburgh. To see 15,000 people there enjoying a game of rugby has been an absolute joy.”

Shaun Edwards will be back at BT Murrayfield on Sunday, this time to oversee the professionals rather than the students. Everyone at The Student wishes Mr Edwards and France the very best in their tough upcoming fixture against an exciting Scotland team.

Image: Wikimedia Commons