Shaun Edwards interview: France defence guru on Six Nations, his proudest achievement, tactics and Wigan roots

A two-word text from his old school coach can still put Shaun Edwards on top of the world.

The 56-year-old has won accolades and plaudits throughout one of rugby’s most decorated careers, yet it is still a curt “well done” from Mr McLeod that has Edwards standing tall.

After 52 trophies as player and coach, from Wigan to France, Edwards even now still leans on the lessons from his visionary teacher, Steve McLeod, at St John Fisher High School.

“I still get the odd text from Mr McLeod: he’s very much a Wigan man and doesn’t spare too many words,” Edwards told Standard Sport. “He’s a proper Wigan guy, and if he says ‘well done’, I feel like I’m on cloud nine. My coaching style goes all the way back to those school days. Mr McLeod was light years ahead of everybody else.

“He was into player welfare even back in those days. He wouldn’t let us play more than twice a week.

“We all wanted to play club games at weekends, as well as school matches and Wigan Schools games, too. But he would say, ‘if you play extra games, you’re not playing for the school, I don’t care how good you are’.”

Winning mentality: Shaun Edwards has thrived as the coordinator of the French defence (AFP via Getty Images)
Winning mentality: Shaun Edwards has thrived as the coordinator of the French defence (AFP via Getty Images)

Edwards has settled in Perpignan’s Canet-Plage, renovating a house for his family on his latest coaching adventure with France’s national side that follows 11 glittering years in Wales with Warren Gatland.

Les Bleus’ defence coach loves the 250-metre walk to the beach in a community where the fervent rugby following offers healthy parallels with his Wigan upbringing.

Edwards has trotted the globe, worked with and beaten rugby’s best and all the while turning his passion into a career. Geography aside, though, Edwards is as close as ever to Wigan.

“A lot of my best friends are lads I went to school with,” said Edwards. “I was just talking to a lad I used to sit next to — and his name’s Speedy.”

France returned a perfect 12 wins from 12 Tests en route to the Six Nations Grand Slam and much more besides in a stellar 2022.

The French, led by Fabien Galthie, will host the World Cup in September, numbering among the favourites to win the Webb Ellis Cup. They will launch their Grand Slam defence by taking on Italy in Rome on Sunday.

But from Grand Final triumphs with Wigan to Six Nations success with Wales and now France, via domestic and European glory with Wasps, one achievement still stands out for Edwards.

Wales toppled Ireland 22-10 in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final, nullifying Ronan O’Gara’s tactical kicking with a defensive set-up that has since become an industry standard.

Anyone who thinks you don’t have to kick the ball at the highest level doesn’t really understand rugby

“One of my most satisfying moments will be bringing in the 13-2 defensive formation,” said Edwards. “I see almost every team using that formation now. O’Gara was brilliant at banging the ball into touch off one bounce, and Ireland had a really good defensive lineout.

“Before the 2011 World Cup, I said to Gats, ‘what about playing with two full-backs?’ And he said, ‘yeah, I like that’. Initially it was to stop O’Gara finding touch and, well, it worked, because it cut out a lot of his kicks.”

Edwards’s defensive zeal and meticulous planning provide the perfect foil for France’s classic attacking panache. Les Bleus have built their imposing ascent on detail, trust — and kicking.

“We’ve got into a good habit of winning the tight games,” said Edwards. “Our goal-kicking has been excellent, but the lads also believe in our tactical kicking game.

“We can play entertaining rugby, but there’s a time and place for that. And the lads understand you have to do both to win Test matches.

“They believe in the kicking game. Anyone who thinks you don’t have to kick the ball at the highest level doesn’t really understand.

“Rugby’s a very tactical game. Emotion, passion, physicality, it’s all important — but if you don’t have any tactics, at Test level, you’ll get found out.

“That’s where we’ve improved, we’re tactically more aware. You have to remember what it felt like as a player. At some stage your heart rate will be upwards of 170 beats per minute. Your heart rate’s flying, you’re fatigued and there’s only so much information you can clarify.”