Late Saturday afternoon. The second Six Nations game of the weekend is still very much in the balance in Twickenham, but another Englishman is the name on everyone’s lips in Cardiff.
Wayne Barnes’ refereeing has already generated a viewnami on Twitter, but the view inside the Millennium Stadium holds that his compatriot Shaun Edwards has done more to influence the course of the game.
Defence had been a dirty word after the first three weekends of the championship. Tries had been rationed as the overt physicality and talk of concussion had cast a cloud over a tournament gripped in a tactical straitjacket.
So-called rugby purists have been wasting their sweetness on the desert air in their declarations that we are witnessing a terrible beauty, but an entire stadium rose in appreciation in that third quarter when Wales held Ireland out over 52 phases.
It was, fittingly, a period of pressure preceded by a rendition of ‘Men of Harlech’, the song made famous in the movie ‘Zulu’ in which a tiny Welsh garrison of 150 men withstood an onslaught by up to 4,000 Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift.
That the regiment in question was still English at the time – and contained numerous Irish soldiers — is a moot point and, as far as Edwards was concerned, so too is the place that astonishing passage of defiance will assume in rugby’s sporting pantheons.
“That’s for you esteemed gentlemen to say,” the team’s defence coach said.
“I’m just pleased we held them out for such a sustained period. To defend in your own 22 for nine-and-a-half minutes and to concede just one try from a maul, it’s great credit to the lads and the fitness staff.
“We kept getting off the floor quickly. If you’re on the floor you’re out of the game in rugby union.
We got into position very quickly. There’s a mental and physical aspect to that as well. Our tackling, in particular our leg chops, were of the highest order.”
Edwards had primed Wales for the onslaught.
He declared with certainty to his troops last week that Joe Schmidt’s side would not repeat their aerial bombardments, but instead seek to bludgeon their way through. Expect to make between 140 and 200 tackles, he warned. They made 250.
“It shows what I know then,” he deadpanned.
The exercise in humility only went so far. The former Wasps coach’s opening gambit when interviewed was to talk about the emotion attached to what he said could be “my last campaign with Wales” given the management team’s contracts expire after the World Cup.
With Warren Gatland expected to move on in November, it was a cleverly rolled incendiary by a man who may feel he has served his dues over seven seasons as the Kiwi’s defence coach and that a promotion is due.
The players clearly haven’t tired of his message.
Dan Biggar spoke about the culture in the Welsh team that forced him to retake his feet and fill the defensive line after a hit on Rob Kearney that left the out-half holding his right shoulder in obvious pain. Edwards has been central in building that.
“It’s respect,” said Biggar. “If you make a mistake or you mess up then everyone on this team has licence to let someone have it and I think that’s great. We need that, to be able to say that something isn’t acceptable.
“Shaun is one of them,” he added. “He is an absolute leader. He wants to be the best, he wants us to be the best we can be. He drives high standards, he’s quite hard and doesn’t give too much away.”
The Gatland-Edwards ticket, panned after their 26-3 loss in Dublin last year and in the wake of the reversal in Cardiff to England last month, clearly has some legs in it, regardless of what people thought or the small print on their contracts may say.
“We can be hugely satisfied with that victory,” said Biggar. “It’s almost not like a winning dressing-room in there just because the lads were so knackered. When we analyse that the fight and the spirit is clear to see.
“We’ve given ourselves a fighting chance to go out and win this title again and if we can win it from everyone writing us off t will be certainly one of the best achievements for this team.”
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