The Evening Standard

Shaun Edwards has never been afraid to speak his mind. It started when he was playing rugby league for Wigan back in 1984 and he took the field wearing a badge supporting the miners’ strike.

“You forget how split the country was,” he says. “I come from a working-class background and went marching for the miners. My father was a miner and my grandad was a miner.”

Edwards is also anti-war – he feels the First World War was unjustified and opposed the invasion of Iraq on principle, although he admires the soldiers fighting there and offers a prayer every time he passes the war memorial not far from his home in west London.

It is not hard to work out where the Wasps head coach derives his moral code from. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, he used to cross himself before a match and has since become a student of other religions.

“I have studied Hinduism and Buddhism,” he adds. “I have read books on Buddha and studied the Bhagavad-Gita. I go to the Kabbalah centre in London, which has helped me a lot since I lost my brother.”

Billy Joe Edwards died in 2003 when he was 20 after his car overturned in Bury, killing him and his Wigan Academy team-mate Craig Johnson.

His brother’s death has helped Edwards to keep his private life, which has had its share of celebrity glory, on a even keel.

His long relationship with M People singer Heather Small – they never married but had a son, James – ended some time ago but Edwards cannot praise her enough.

“I met her backstage after a concert in Bradford 16 years ago”, he reveals. “She is probably the most single-minded person I have ever met. Heather didn’t drink, smoke, drink milk, nor eat meat. She goes to bed at 10.30 at night and is in the gym at 6 in the morning.”

Small was one of the main reasons why Edwards migrated to London from his native Wigan when she was then pregnant with James in 1997. Edwards had proposed to his then Wigan coach Eric Hughes that he live part-time in London with Heather but the idea appalled Hughes and the resulting row ended with the full-back leaving Lancashire for the London Broncos.

Edwards has a close relationship with James, who still lives with his mum. It helps that his son’s school, St Paul’s, is near Edwards’s Chiswick home, just across the River Thames from Twickenham, the home of rugby.

The 43 year old makes no secret of the fact that he was courted by RFU chiefs at HQ when Martin Johnson was first appointed team manager in April 2008.

Edwards goes as far as to reveal that he “met Martin when he first got the job”.

He adds: “I had a cup of tea with him in someone’s house. The meeting was about working [together] in the future. I am not going to mention what was said because, obviously, England have coaches in place and I would not like to undermine their position.”

Despite the recent autumn international series ending with two defeats out of three Test matches for England, Edwards does not want to add to the avalanche of criticism that has hit Johnson. The two have clearly become close, shared as they do painful memories of losing loved ones at an early age.

“He spoke about his mother quite a lot,” recalls Edwards. “She was a very special person. She died very young and, having gone through a similar experience with my brother, we talked about it back and forth.”

He has a great deal of sympathy as well for how difficult it can be for famous players, like Johnson, to take to management without having had any previous experience.

Edwards came to coaching after a glittering career in rugby league, mostly for Wigan. He won a record eight rugby league championships, nine Challenge Cups and 36 caps for Great Britain. But once he became a coach that playing record meant nothing.

“Going into coaching meant I went back to school,” he tells me. “You have to say you are 17 again, back at the bottom of the pile. I had to swallow my ego when I asked great coaches if I could hang around with them.

“I went to Australia to spend time with the great Wayne Bennett (coach of the Brisbane Broncos), the greatest football league coach. I would follow him round, listen to everything he said, and go and make a note. He also gave me some private tuition.”

The key, says Edwards, for players going into coaching is to: “Be humble enough to ask good teachers to share their knowledge, then you have a chance.”

And is that what Johnson is not doing, I ask?

“I have no idea what Johnson does,” he replies. “Great players can become great managers. But you do have to swallow your ego a little bit and your pride. Great players find that humility difficult.”

By the time he met Johnson, Edwards had already shaken hands on a deal with the Welsh manager Warren Gatland to become the Principality’s defensive coach. The RFU made him an offer, but that came after he had already accepted the Welsh job.

“They knew I had had an approach from Wales,” says Edwards pointedly.

They wanted him to coach the England second team, which would have denied him his lifetime ambition of going on the 2009 British Lions trip to South Africa.

“That tour was everything I expected,” he says of last summer’s enthralling series, won 2-1 by the Springboks. “It will haunt me till the day I die that we did not win.

“There is a feeling sometimes that sportsmen don’t have empathy with fans, that they are concerned with pay packets. That tour showed nothing could be further from the truth.”

This makes Edwards sound like a rugby evangelist but he complements his will to win with a strict moral code. “I won’t spy on my opponents, sneak up on someone’s training. It would take the gloss off winning.”

Inevitably the talk turns to “Bloodgate” and how Harlequins tried to cheat their way past Leinster in the Heineken Cup last season. Edwards’s club’s official policy is to say nothing, as Wasps would have got into the competition this season if Harlequins had been disqualified for faking the blood injury in the quarter-final against the Irish province. But, when I ask if he would have done what Dean Richards, the Harlequins’ coach, did his answer is immediate: “No, I would not.”

He adds: “It was obvious to me something was untoward when I was watching the match. Nick Evans had been substituted but he was warming up on the bench.

“You are not allowed to come off and go back on in rugby unless you are a front row forward or there is a blood injury. But as Tom Williams went on to the pitch Evans was warming up. Williams must have been told: ‘You are going to be coming off in three or four minutes.’ Otherwise why would Evans be warming up?”

Part of London’s attraction for Edwards is the close rivalry with Quins and London Irish but the capital holds other attractions. The scion of a Wigan coal mining family is a man of the arts. “I like living in London,” he says. “I like to look at historic buildings, to see the different styles.”

Edwards also enjoys classical music and is in raptures about his recent first visit to the ballet – Swan Lake.

Does this artistic bent explain why he feels so strongly that the game’s law makers are destroying the sport of rugby as a spectacle?

“Everybody would like to see more running rugby but you can’t do it because of the referees,” he says. “I feel the attacking team are being refereed far too harshly and attack should have the benefit of doubt.

“Then we will get back to what rugby should be about: Webb Ellis first started the game by picking the ball up and running with it. Instead, what we are looking at in Test matches at the highest level is between 75 and 85 kicks which, to me, is not rugby.

“You have to play for percentages otherwise you cannot win. It is proven by the fact that the top two teams in the world, South Africa and New Zealand, are the teams that kick the ball more than anybody else.”

The result, says Edwards, is making rugby like Australian Rules football or Gaelic football.

But such considerations may matter little next February when Edwards comes with Wales to Twickenham for the opening Six Nations match.

When I ask him what it will be like he lets out a prolonged sigh and says: “I am sure England will have the guys fit again, it will be a huge challenge for the Welsh.”

And, while he feels this will be the closest championship for some time, he still makes France the favourites as they have “the talent and incredible players” but insists that Wales “have a fighting chance”.

Ever since his brother died, Edwards admits that he has lived for the moment. Contracted to Wales for 2011 he feels pretty comfortable where he is even though England might come calling one day.

“Being the head coach of England seems to involve a lot of off-the-field stuff. I don’t want that at this stage of my life.”

It does, though, leave the impression that one day Edwards might be at Twickenham as of right and not with a visiting team.

Shaun Edwards was talking courtesy of EMC, an information management company, and official club sponsor of London Wasps.


Share |



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo