SIR CLIVE WOODWARD meets France coach Shaun Edwards

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD meets France coach Shaun Edwards who reveals why he turned down an England role and how he now plans to help lead France to world domination starting with the upcoming Six Nations

  • Shaun Edwards is now France’s defence coach after taking up role in 2020
  • Ex-Wigan rugby league star had previously held a similar role with Wales
  • Edwards admits it was Sir Clive Woodward that inspired him 20 years ago
  • The 54-year-old still holds a coaching dossier given to him by Woodward 

I’ve admired Shaun Edwards for a long time. As a player for Wigan and Great Britain he possessed an incredible winning mentality and indomitable spirit.

As a coach for Wasps and Wales he again proved to be a serial winner. After only a year in the job, he’s making a big difference with France in tandem with Fabien Galthie and Raphael Ibanez.

It’s a huge regret that I never got to work with Shaun or indeed just talk rugby with him… until now.

France defence coach Shaun Edwards (above) spoke with Sir Clive Woodward

Sir Clive Woodward: Shaun, what a pleasure it is to finally chat with you. There is so much I want to cover but let me start by asking why you chose union over league when your coaching career started. I am assuming you weren’t short of offers from league clubs?

Shaun Edwards: Well, I’m afraid you’re to blame for that one, Clive. Back in 2001, soon after I retired as a player, you invited me to observe a day’s training with England at Pennyhill Park and sit in on your meetings ahead of England’s summer tour of North America. Watch, listen and learn. I was blown away by the attention to detail and complexity of the game. The different skills and training methods.

I’ve still got that summer tour dossier with me. You wrote a mission statement and it finishes like this: ‘Becoming the best team in world rugby is our ONLY objective and that means winning rugby matches.’ Winning! You were talking my language.

Soon after, two coaching offers came: a two-year head coach job with a Super League club and a one-year offer from Wasps as an assistant, for half the salary. I went with Wasps. What I had seen that day with England convinced me. It excited me.

CW: Wow! I remember inviting you to join us but did not realise it had such an effect. That is really humbling and makes me even more annoyed we never got to work together!

Edwards admits his coaching career was inspired by Woodward and still carries a dossier given to him by England’s 2003 World Cup winning manager from 20 years ago

SE: Never say never, Clive. I am only 54. I keep myself in good shape and aim to be around coaching for a very long time yet. Wayne Bennett is 71 and still coaching at the top level in Australia. I’ve got a big job on with France right now, it’s very exciting and demanding. But who knows what the future holds?

CW: It’s always frustrated me that after you started enjoying success with Warren at Wasps, somebody at the RFU didn’t get you on board. Lawrence Dallaglio and all the Wasps boys spoke so highly of you. Were you ever offered a position?

SE: To be fair, Andy Robinson offered me the defence coach job in 2006 but it was a really difficult time personally. My younger brother Billy Joe had been killed in a car accident and, frankly, I was struggling a bit with the grieving process. What I did find, though, was that keeping busy, busy, busy really helped. At the time I had taken over from Warren as head coach at Wasps with Geech (Ian McGeechan) as the director of rugby. It was full-on every day.

I talked things through with my Mum, who is a very wise lady, and she thought I wasn’t ready. And I wasn’t. I needed that 24-7 involvement with Wasps.

By the way, if there is anybody out there right now suffering a loss in these difficult times, my advice is try to stay busy. It helps even though the pain never goes.

CW: Totally. What a difficult but smart decision. You mentioned winning and that need to win is different from just enjoying playing a sport. You’ve been a winner all your career but where does that come from. DNA or did you acquire it? Many people are uncomfortable with winners, by the way.

Edwards admits he turned down a role to coach England’s defence offered by Andy Robinson (above) in 2006 after struggles grieving with the tragic death of his younger brother Billy Joe

SE: They are. Winners can be seen as uncompromising, difficult people to be around, but if there’s any truth in that it’s only on match day. The other six days a week I like to think I am hard-working but relaxed and approachable. A pretty normal guy. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been a professional all my life, since the age of 10 playing for Wigan Schools.

My Dad was a really good league pro who suffered a bad spinal injury at the age of 24 and had to retire, pretty much disabled. Sport was a serious business for him and for me. It was the family’s livelihood and winning – succeeding – mattered. At the age of 12 I took myself down to Wigan Harriers for sprint training, not because I loved athletics but because I wanted to be quicker than I was to help my rugby.

CW: You have worked with some superb coaches but where does your coaching style and philosophy come from? Was it ingrained or have you picked things up along the way?

SE: It’s been a privilege working with the likes of Warren and Geech and of course you are always going to learn from them, but actually my biggest influence is still my PE master at John Fisher RC school in Wigan. Mr Steve McLeod. I can’t praise him enough. He was brilliant and way ahead of his time.

He had us young kids training with weights and circuits, he was organised and emphasised the importance of winning and being tough but he was also well aware of welfare needs for young kids. No more than two matches a week. I would have played twice a day.

CW: I’m intrigued you captained England Schools Under 16s at union AND league which, firstly, was a remarkable achievement but also must have helped when you switched to coach union.

Edwards is pictured in action with Wigan in 1994 during his playing days in rugby league

SE: Fair point. Thanks to Mr McLeod we pushed hard at both sports although there was never any doubt given my background that I would choose league. Waterloo were interested in me but union was amateur and frankly we needed the living league could provide. I got a £10,000 signing-on fee with Wigan on my 17th birthday and I put £9,000 in a savings account and spent the rest on things for Mum around the house, a TV and a video recorder.

The England calls-ups for union and league came in the same week. On the Friday I captained the league side against France at Central Park, Wigan – we won – then on the Monday I travelled to Bristol by train with another dual international Joe Gunn – who had also played against the French – and I captained England Under 16s to a 20-19 win over the Welsh at union. I was bloody tired when we got home the next day! Mr McLeod was right, two games a week maximum.

CW: That’s amazing! The sheer rugby talent in league always impressed me. In my first year as England coach I spent more time up North watching league players than union. I never understood the animosity between the codes.

When I lived in Australia I would play for the Manly union side on Saturday, go and watch the league side, Manly Sea Eagles on Sunday, then all the players from both teams would meet down the pub on Sunday night. It was so natural; we were just rugby players.

SE: You did a lot to break down the barriers by turning to league players such as Jason Robinson and coaches like Phil Larder. It always makes me smile when people ask why more league players did not make a big ‘impact’ in union. The fact is they are always compared with Jason, who was a genius. Everybody comes off second-best compared with Jason. Plenty of league players did OK… but they weren’t Jason Robinson!

CW: Exactly. What a player. Right, talk to me about France. I have always had a soft spot for French rugby and I spend a lot of time working there now at Apex2100 International Ski Academy in Tignes. Coaching France is the only international rugby job that interested me outside of England.

I was invited for an interview a few years ago and was disappointed when they appointed Guy Noves. The feedback I got was that I was the best candidate but they decided it was still a step too far for an overseas coach to be in charge of Les Bleus. I wish they’d told me that before the interview!

SE: My goal now is to help make French rugby fans proud of the way their team play. Do we need to win big titles – Six Nations, Slams and a World Cup – to be considered successful and cement that relationship with the fans? Yes, of course. But do we have to do it now? No. For now I just want France to be proud of their team.

CW: That chimes with me. Although winning was always my ultimate aim with England, I rarely spoke directly about it. You achieved that by getting 85,000 at Twickenham on their feet going nuts at the quality of your players and the excitement of your rugby. If you can create that amount of excitement you must be playing brilliantly and would win regardless! It was chicken and egg.

Edwards is now part of the France set-up as defensive coach and hopes to lead Les Bleus to success in the Six Nations with Grand Slams as well as the World Cup

SE: We are a very young team even if some of the guys seem mature. We have time to grow. We have the talent to create that excitement.

CW: I expect your biggest challenge, Shaun, will be eradicating the occasional madness from French rugby, those moments which can undo years of work. I am thinking of the Wales quarter-final at the last World Cup when France lost their heads and Seb Vahaamahina got sent off and they lost a huge game they should have won.

Those moments are so destructive. And then last season your prop Haouas got sent off at Murrayfield and possibly cost you the game and a Slam.

SE: Tell me about it. Going back to the World Cup, I watched France warm up that day in Japan and my eyes were popping out. I wandered over to Warren: “I think we might be in trouble here, boss”. They were so up for it. They started brilliantly.

CW: But then they lost it. I was with former France internationals in the stands including Emile Ntamack – Romain’s dad – and he and all the French fans just shrugged their shoulders in resignation as if it was to be expected! That’s crazy.

SE: Agreed. What I am trying to spell out is that being tough is not punching or kicking a guy and getting a yellow or red card. That’s 40 years ago. That’s not tough, that’s stupid. Toughness is making a couple of big, legal tackles, your heart rate topping 180, and still bouncing straight back into the line and making another tackle and another. For 80 minutes.

The 54-year-old was part of Warren Gatland’s (right) Wales set-up during the 2019 World Cup

There are plenty of opportunities, legally, to physically dominate your opponent and to make him suffer. Scrummaging, tackling, running him ragged. You don’t need the other stuff. The best retaliation is always winning.

CW: It’s pretty easy to get sent off these days with the stricter rulings around the tackle and health concerns about contact to the head. Quite right, too, but it puts even more onus on being disciplined.

SE: Massively. Misjudge or mistime a tackle now and you can be sent off despite having no intention of breaking the law. Without giving many secrets away, I’ve changed the way I’m coaching tackling. I’m a huge boxing fan and I use boxing terms to paint the picture. Until recently you were looking to land a big hook, to plant your shoulder into the waist or chest of the ball-carrier when tackling but that can get you in trouble now if somebody falls or ducks.

So now the image I draw is a big uppercut. Always try to make the tackle from down low, underneath the ball carrier’s head. That makes it much more difficult to be accused of going high.

CW: That’s brilliant in its simplicity. I just hope you can change the mindset of a nation. Have you got any pearls of wisdom for coaches at whatever level? We both agree that the key is getting selection right, making sure your best players with that winning mentality are on the pitch. Anything else?

THE BOX KICK IS DRIVING ME MADE, SHAUN. HELP! 

CW: I’ve lost patience with the box kick. If we’d had packed stadiums in the autumn, paying spectators would be leaving before the end. It’s the caterpillars and the slow motion nature of play and scrum-halves being given unlimited time with nobody allowed to tackle them. Yet some international coaches justify it by saying it’s just the way the game has developed! What do you make of it?

SE: Firstly, the big picture. It’s important to have a great kicking game and that was the first thing I spoke about with Fabian when I joined. When I was with Wales we won a lot of close games with France because we had a better kicking game. If they had our kicking skills and options, they win.

But the box kick? When it first caught on, as a defensive coach I was licking my lips. If the opposition scrum-half is only allowed five seconds – as the law was intended – you can cause chaos by good, aggressive, legal counter-rucking and pressurising the nine.

With Wales we had quite a bit of success at the 2015 World Cup with those tactics.

But over time refs started getting very lenient and protecting the scrum-half. Five seconds? I’ve counted up to 13 before the scrum-half finally hoists the kick and then the attack coaches have come up with these caterpillars to protect the scrum-half even more. If the situation was refereed as originally intended, there would be much less box kicking.

CW: So, because of the caterpillar and because referees never implement the ‘use it or lose it’ rule, the scrum-half has ample time to put in excellent kicks which give the team in possession every chance of winning the ball in the air. If the nine really only had a couple of seconds, there would be far less accuracy and potentially you are giving the opposition good-quality free ball.

SE: Exactly.

CW: So the game needs to wise up. No more caterpillars and a penalty for not using it within five seconds. That would then make scrum-halves use quick, quality passes and, if they do kick, be skilful enough to kick under real pressure. It’s a good start, Shaun!

SE: Yes. What I’ve learned – and you never stop learning in this game – is that you must coach to what you have got. With Wales we always had two natural opensides on the pitch and sometimes the entire backrow were natural opensides because we were just blessed with those brilliant players and we wanted them on the pitch.

Then I arrived at France and we probably haven’t got one natural openside or jackal pressing for a start at present although we compete hard at every breakdown. Our backrow boys have different talents – they are fantastic athletic ball-carriers, good in the lineout, strong tacklers.

As a coach you must always be willing to adapt. Exeter won an incredible league and European Cup double last season and I would argue their first-choice backrow probably lacks a natural seven and jackal. So be it. You concentrate on the qualities of the players available at the time.

CW: Amen to that. Thank you, Shaun. I wish you every success.

SE: It’s been an honour, Clive. Stay safe everybody.




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