James Small-Edwards interview: From scrum-half to city councillor, I still turn to France coach dad for advice
Good luck to anyone trying to tell Shaun Edwards and family to stick to sport.
The teenager who taped over the British Coal logo on Great Britain Rugby League duty in the 1984 Miners’ Strike has become the dad proud to see his son choose politics over rugby.
France’s decorated defence coach will lead Les Bleus into battle at Twickenham tomorrow, with son James Small-Edwards hailing the exemplary social conscience that led him to a political career.
Small-Edwards thrived alongside England flanker Jack Willis in Wasps’ academy, but failed to secure a full professional contract – and last year won a seat on Westminster Council for the Labour party.
He realised that while we all love sport dearly, some things are bigger than sport.
From scrum-half to city councillor, Small-Edwards still turns to dad Shaun for advice, support and the odd principled stance.
“I remember growing up hearing stories about my dad taping up the British Coal logo during the miners’ strike,” Small-Edwards told Standard Sport. “And funnily enough a team-mate recently told me another story that I’d never known about.
“This was years later, in the early nineties, and British Coal were still sponsors of British Rugby League at that point. And my dad still refused to do a photoshoot with them because there were more pit closures happening at that time.
“A lot of sportsmen in that situation would keep their heads out of it, and do what the sponsors say or what the higher-ups say. The fact my dad was still very committed to the area in which he’d grown up, a pit village where all the men were employed in those coal mining industries.
“He realised that while we all love sport dearly, some things are bigger than sport. That’s definitely an inspiration for me, that he was willing to risk a detrimental effect on his career for something he deemed to be bigger and more important.”
Edwards went from driving France to last year’s Six Nations Grand Slam to canvassing in Bayswater just days later.
Small-Edwards admitted 2022 was a stellar year for his family, but he insisted he still draws just as much inspiration from the way his celebrated rugby coach father has handled the setbacks too.
“I’m so proud of my dad, but I get to see it closer than anyone so I’ve also seen the disappointments and the lows as well,” said Small-Edwards. “My dad’s spoken before about retiring in 2000 and going 18 months without any work, where the highlight of his day was going and getting the morning newspaper.
“It took a tremendous amount of resilience for him to get to where he did with Wasps, Wales and France. If I can emulate maybe even 10 per cent of that I’ll hopefully go alright.”
Small-Edwards read politics at Edinburgh then gained a Masters degree at Oxford. He has helped Westminster’s now Labour council rename part of Bayswater Road as Kyiv Road in solidarity with Ukraine, and pushed through changes to see primary school pupils of all ages receive free lunches.
If his was a bold decision to leave rugby behind, so was his dad’s call to join France in 2020.
“I always had an interest in politics but if you’d told me when I was 16 or 17 that six or seven years later I’d be an elected official I’d have been very surprised,” said Small-Edwards.
“I was surprised not to gain a fully pro contract with Wasps, and it was very tough to take at the time, having played for the first team in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. But now it’s turned out absolutely the right way, I’m very happy and I know my family is very proud.
“I went to watch the Grand Slam game in France last year and was on the train back at 9am the next day to be back canvassing. My dad came over and helped too later, and he was a great source of support. He has just told me to continue doing what I believe in, stay true to myself and do what I believe is right.
“He’s a very passionate person, and that passion is very beneficial from a coaching perspective. He knows himself, he knows what he wants, and he knows what he wants from players.”
There will not be any family catch-up in London this weekend however, as Small-Edwards will be in Edinburgh for a reunion with university and Scottish Students rugby friends.
The talented half-back also conceded he will be supporting England tomorrow, despite his dad’s France duties.
“I will be supporting England, definitely,” Small-Edwards confirmed. “I’m hugely supportive and proud of my dad, but I’ll be cheering on England. I’ll be in Edinburgh so won’t be at the match but will be watching on TV. It’s been a cracking Six Nations and brilliant advert for the game.”