It was in the home coaching box of the Stade de France that Shaun Edwards found himself on Sunday afternoon as France stunned England with a 24-17 win to open the 2020 Six Nations. The discussion about which box in which country, and even in which sport, had engulfed the Wigan-born coach throughout 2019.
Edwards had joined Wasps in 2001 as an assistant coach and began working under future Welsh coach Warren Gatland the following year. When Gatland headed home to New Zealand for a spell with Waikato, Edwards ascended to the Wasps’ throne. Between 2005 and 2008 Edwards won three titles to become one of the most sought-after English coaches, and he was offered a job coaching England’s second-tier national side, the Saxons. The alternative was to head across the Severn and begin working with Gatland once again as Welsh defence coach. He decided on the latter.
The newly-formed coaching team won the Grand Slam in their first full year together in 2008, and despite offers from England, who were keen to atone for failing to keep him in his home country, Edwards would stay with Wales for 11 years – even leaving Wasps in 2011 to give Wales his full attention.
The Gatland-Edwards partnership had to break up at some point, and 2019 was that year. The former wanted to return to New Zealand, a place he had only spent extended holidays in during his time coaching Wales. With that, the battle for Edwards’ contract began.
He appeared to be joining his hometown club Wigan Warriors as far back as August 2018. He had never coached in rugby league but had spent all of his playing career in the sport. The cracks appeared in early 2019 when Edwards revealed that he hadn’t signed a contract with the Warriors, and in April he officially turned the Warriors down and announced his intentions to stay in rugby union.
Wales wanted Edwards to stay on as part of new boss Wayne Pivac’s coaching team but their offer of a two-year contract couldn’t match France’s bid of a four-year deal for roughly the same money. After years of religiously sourcing their coaches from within France they had acquired one of the best defensive minds from across La Manche.
Just one game after his arrival Shaun Edwards’ fingerprints can be seen all over this French defence, with key elements of recent Welsh sides already evident. The defence is about intensity; cut down the opposition’s space, swarm them once you start driving them back, and leave them with the kick as the only option. For almost an hour on Sunday, France did just that.
Edwards’ France charged off their defensive line with extreme line speed and bundled up the English carriers. The England starting back row, the group you would expect to carry most effectively, made just 37 metres in their 32 carries. That is a fairly pitiful return for the trio Eddie Jones would have expected to create holes for his backs.
The reason for that lack of success was the French intensity. It is impossible to carry successfully when you are hit well behind the gain line by two men intent on hammering you into the ground. France didn’t just do that once, they made 182 tackles on Sunday, many of those occurring during the numerous goal-line stands where England battered away time after time only to find the French door would not budge.
If defending is about heart then this version of France has much more than the team who conceded three tries per game last year. No doubt the fear of messing up and being called out by Edwards has helped there.
Anyone who has ever been coached by Edwards will know that the French team will not receive a rest week. As good as they were for an hour, the 53-year-old coach will be very concerned by the final 20 minutes.
France conceded 17 points in that final quarter, which suggests either a drop in commitment when it appeared like the game was won, or, more worrying, a drop in fitness. Defending like Edwards wants requires an extreme level of fitness, and there is a chance that this Six Nations will be too soon for France to show off the full benefit that Edwards brings.
What is clear is that Edwards, after dispatching the country of his birth, will have one eye on his former employers for what might be the deciding match of the tournament on February 22nd.