Shaun Edwards played his only game of Rugby Union for England so long ago that Ollie Campbell’s goals had just made Ireland joint champions of the Five Nations.
Never can the shortest of careers have had more of a recurring impact on English fortunes than Edwards captaincy of their schoolboy team against Wales at Bristol in the spring of 1983. The price the RFU has had to pay for their inability to get him on-side at any stage since the collapse of the sport’s Berlin Wall a quarter of a century ago still knows no bounds.
How ironic that after all those famous Grand Slam and World Cup ambushes of England during his time with Wales, the tournament favourites should start their campaign at risk of being undone by another covert Edwards operation, this one plotted in the name of France.
For all Eddie Jones’ bluster about the callow French being subjected to the ‘brutal physicality’ supposedly awaiting them, Friday’s biggie in Paris seems to fit snugly into Edwards’ modus operandi for devising a strategy to beat the odds.
Successive management regimes at Twickenham have conspired, however unwittingly, to ensure that he has remained a potent thorn in the Red Rose side for so long. In defence of the RFU, it ought to be pointed out that they were powerless to prevent the startling brevity of Edwards’ playing career in Union, starting and finishing on the same afternoon.
At a time when the archaic amateur regulations prevented anyone offering the prodigious 16-year-old scrum-half a penny, Wigan had him under lock and key. As soon as the boy turned 17, that summer, he would sign a deal worth £35,000.
“It was £10,000 straight away and £5,000-a-year bonus for four years,” he told me. “The rest was for bonuses to play for Great Britain and go on a GB tour. When we won a match, we were also paid £150 which I thought was great. I gave the first ten grand to my dad (a scrum-half until a spinal injury finished him at the age of 24) and he invested almost all of it. I bought a VHS recorder and a new TV. I might also have bought my mum a washing machine. It was my way of thanking my parents for what they’d done for me.’’
If the RFU never had a prayer back then, they most certainly had the wherewithal once Union put an end to the hypocrisy of shamateurism.
Staggeringly, they bungled a series of opportunities to sign Edwards to their coaching staff, the first before he had gone into Welsh partnership with Warren Gatland.
England made their first attempt to claim him two years earlier, way back in 2006. Andy Robinson’s wish to have Edwards help dig him out of a hole fell on deaf ears because Edwards, then head honcho at Wasps after Gatland’s brief return to New Zealand, wanted to show he was more than merely a defence coach.
A talk with his mother, whom he has described as ‘a little firecracker with a heart of gold’, confirmed the hunch that the time wasn’t right. When it was, two years later after Wasps under Edwards had won a third English Premiership title, the RFU failed miserably to get their man.
In attempting to dissuade him from taking a part-time role with Wales, they succeeded only in convincing him to take it by offering him nothing more challenging than looking after England’s second string, the Saxons. Worse still, they told him he would not be able to pick his own coaches. Neither would he have the final word on selection.
Confronted by such a discouraging scenario, Edwards laid his options bare to the Wasps squad, seeking their approval before finalising his choice. ‘
“‘Vicks’ (England prop Phil Vickery) said to me: ‘How much have England offered you to run the Saxons?’ “I told him: ten grand. And I told him how much Wales had offered me. All the players gave me their blessing to go with Wales. I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise.”
England’s next opportunity to get him on board presented itself during the inquest into their early exit from the 2011 World Cup, one made all the more embarrassing by revelations of nightclub revelry which extended to dwarf- throwing contests.
As manager, Martin Johnson met Edwards, then a free agent having left Wasps after winning two European Cups and one Anglo-Welsh Cup on top of the three Premiership titles. ‘’We had a chat,’’ Edwards said. ‘’He didn’t really offer me anything.’’
That left him free to sign up for four more years with Wales, on a full-time basis. The following year, 2012, Edwards helped them win a second Slam, their concession of a mere two tries over the five matches stunning confirmation of his defensive operation. England’s suffering continued on an almost annual basis. In 2013, with Wales under Rob Howley during Gatland’s pre-Lions sabbatical, the Six Nations climax took an all-conquering England to Cardiff for their most anti-climactic occasion of modern times. Instead of a Grand Slam, they were beaten on an unprecedented scale, 30-3.
Worse would follow, another improbable Welsh win at Twickenham, no matter how fortuitous, led to England’s premature removal from their own World Cup and Stuart Lancaster’s resignation. Despite the subsequent removal of his specialist coaches including Andy Farrell, all thrown overboard to clear the decks for Jones, England left Edwards free to renew his four-year deal with Wales.
They did not consider him as Gatland’s successor or, if they did, nobody has said so. ’I was never interviewed for the head coach’s position,’’ Edwards says in a tone which leaves no doubt that he thinks he should have been. “I was never even asked if I was interested but I’ve since been told that I may be welcomed back sometime in the future. Maybe a lot of people had forgotten that I’d won the European Cup with Wasps. Maybe they were unaware of it. No Welsh team has won that trophy. France offered me the security of a four-and-a-half-year contract. That was the big factor.’’
He will be back in Cardiff with France for Round Three: ‘’If we win there won’t be much emotion from me out of respect for the Welsh players and the Welsh people. I’ll keep it at the same level if Wales win.’’