Edwards leaves England dream ticket in tatters

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The Independent Online

Shaun Edwards may be a patriotic Englishman, but he knows a good deal when he sees one – and a bad deal, come to that. After three weeks of fanciful speculation that Martin Johnson (yet to be appointed as England's team manager, but who cares?) would lure the most talked-about coach in rugby to Twickenham, the rugby league maestro from Wigan yesterday decided to stay with the Wales team he recently helped guide to the most unexpected of Grand Slams. What is more, he has committed himself to the Red Dragonhood for three years.

He will continue to coach Wasps, one of the most successful club sides in Europe, and is now in prime position to pitch for a leading role with the British and Irish Lions, who tour South Africa in the summer of 2009. Unsurprisingly, the chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, Roger Lewis, was in jubilant mood.

"This is an important day for Wales," he said. "We are assembling a formidable array of talent to ensure we re-position Welsh rugby at the forefront of the global game. Shaun thoroughly deserves his fast-growing reputation as an outstanding coach. The focus he brings to his task is legendary."

Edwards's decision came as a severe blow to those on the Rugby Football Union's management board behind the moves to recruit Johnson – and, indeed, Edwards – as the foundation of a new red-rose hierarchy, despite the success of Brian Ashton and his fellow incumbents in taking England to a second successive World Cup final and a best Six Nations finish since 2003.

Edwards was uncomfortably aware of the speculation linking him to a Twickenham position, and given the messy, hole-in-the-corner way the Johnson affair has been handled, it is no surprise he has decided to stay put.

The RFU was not the only organisation in difficulties yesterday. The organising committee behind next year's Lions tour had barely finished confirming the itinerary for the assault on Springbok country when they were confronted with awkward questions about the practicalities of the venture – not least the date of the opening game in Rustenburg, against an invitation side drawn from a handful of provincial teams from the high veld.

This has been scheduled for the last weekend in May – an interesting one, given that the Guinness Premiership final is due to be played on the same afternoon. There may be a one-hour lag between South Africa and England, but the Lions hierarchy could hire Thunderbird III for the day and still not get the right people in the right place at the right time.

It does not stop there. As two of the favourites to coach the Lions, Edwards and Ian McGeechan, both work at Wasps, it is far from impossible that the tourists will find themselves heading south without their most influential back-room operators, as well as half a dozen or more front-line players.

And if, as they would wish to do given that the first three matches will be played at altitude, the tour party leaves in mid-May, the Heineken Cup final could also prove difficult. As things stand, that game is pencilled in for 23 May.

Assuming everyone gets to South Africa sooner or later, they will find themselves in extremely hazardous waters. There will be 10 matches, including three Tests – two of them in the thin air of Pretoria and Johannesburg – and a quartet of demanding games against major Currie Cup teams.

A second invitation team, this time selected from coastal unions such as Eastern Province and Border, will take on the Lions in Port Elizabeth, while the Emerging Springboks, who could be very strong indeed, have been granted a shot at the tourists in Cape Town.

Unlike the triumphant 1997 vintage, the 2009 Lions will have only six games in which to pick a Test side, rather than eight. The one piece of good news is the absence of the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls from the schedule. They were the only provincial side to beat the Lions 11 years ago.

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