Shaun Edwards, not always a study in relaxation during the build-up to a major international match, appeared particularly fraught yesterday as he chewed the fat ahead of this weekend's Six Nations set-to between England and Wales at Twickenham. "I've slipped a disc in my back and it's giving me gyp," he muttered by way of explanation, knowing it wouldn't wash for a second. Edwards did not achieve iconic status on either side of the rugby divide by allowing mere agony to gain the upper hand. Something else was eating away at him, and everyone knew what that "something" might be.
Until the Welsh camp receive a definite "yay" or "nay" on the subject of Lee Byrne and his appeal against the profoundly controversial two-week suspension imposed in the wake of the Heineken Cup "16th man" fandango – the Lions full-back, playing for Ospreys against Leicester, returned to the field after treatment on a bloodied toe before a colleague had been withdrawn – they have no means of distinguishing between their posteriors and their funny bones. While Edwards, the No 2 coach to Warren Gatland and the Red Dragonhood's motivator-in-chief, expects to be told one way or the other as early as today, it will still be too late for comfort.
"There's no doubting that the position is less than ideal," he acknowledged. "I shouldn't say too much because we trust the appeals system and feel sure Lee will be given a proper hearing. But at the moment, we're having to train with two teams: one with Lee in it, the other with someone else at full-back. We very much hope he'll get to play because he has a real spring in his step, he's very sharp and was really looking forward to the game."
The uncertainty over Byrne has blurred the horizon for Wales just when the return of injured personnel, most notably Matthew Rees and Adam Jones, gave them a clear view of the road ahead. If the European Rugby Cup disciplinary classes take mercy on the full-back and suspend his ban, Gatland and Edwards can deploy the brilliant James Hook as a running centre with a kicking game to die for. If the punishment sticks, they will almost certainly have to shift Hook to No 15 and rethink their midfield approach accordingly.
Did Edwards see any virtue in the union code's administrators adjusting their disciplinary system along football lines, thereby allowing a player banned from one competition to continue turning out in another? "I don't really like soccer, so I've no idea what they do there," the rugby league maestro from Wigan replied. "When I was a kid, my dad made me switch the telly off when football came on. But the situation we have in rugby at the moment does seem a bit peculiar, so maybe it's something to look at."
When Edwards first threw in his lot with Wales, at the behest of Gatland before the 2008 Six Nations, the intensity of his work on the training field did not so much shock the players as scare them witless. Martyn Williams, perhaps as gifted an open-side flanker as ever played for Wales, was moved to suggest that he might not have agreed to abandon the comforts of international retirement had he known precisely how challenging Edwards' sessions would be. But the Lancastrian has reined things in over the last few days, to the extent that his charges, often to be seen sporting faces as white as sheets, have a little colour in their cheeks.
"I'm absolutely looking forward to this game against England – I'll be jumping out of my skin," the coach said. "But it's true training has been a lot different compared with the very hard sessions we put in before we last visited Twickenham two years ago. A lot of players were involved in tough Heineken Cup matches the weekend before last, so we felt it was right to lay off it a little. It's the same with all the tactical talk. Game planning is an important part of the build-up and we'll give them an idea of the structure we want. But some of these people have a God-given talent and I want to see them in one-on-one situations, using their skill and their footwork. Ultimately, I'm a big believer that players win games."
Edwards rather likes Twickenham. Why wouldn't he, given his many successes there with Wasps as well as Wales? For Neil Jenkins, a fellow member of the Wales back-room staff, the place has about as much to recommend it as the rough end of Merthyr Tydfil on a wet Wednesday night. "I never won there playing for Wales," said the kicking coach, who made 87 appearances for his country between 1991 and 2002, scoring the princely total of 1,049 points – a small matter of 356 more than his nearest challenger, the current outside-half Stephen Jones. "When you talk about highs and lows, there were only lows. I won against England twice, but one of those games was in Cardiff and the other at Wembley. Twickenham? The only time I got any joy at Twickenham was with the Barbarians.
"In my day, England were always strong: they were either reigning Five Nations champions, or champions in waiting. That pack of theirs was fantastic: Jason Leonard, Martin Johnson and the great back-row unit... they could shut you right out. Maybe they don't have that kind of talent at the moment; we're the ones with three Lions in our front row, half a dozen Lions Test players in our pack, and we feel we can match them in the forwards if we front up.
"But I don't see it being anything other than a tight game, with a lot of kicking. There's nothing wrong with that: one thing people don't appreciate is that the All Blacks kick more than anyone. But it has to be done accurately, with variety and with a purpose, and you have to be prepared to do something different if the situation demands. Last November, the French kicked badly to the New Zealanders and were ripped to shreds on the counter."
Like Jenkins, who made the salient point that the Welsh victory over England in 2008 had as much to do with the hosts' first-half profligacy as with their own second-half opportunism, Edwards would hear nothing of the former world champions being ripe for the taking in London a second time. "I'm quite staggered by the amount of stick they receive," he said, doing his level best to appear wholly serious. "We have a lot of respect for them."
He was far happier talking about his team's options at No 15, even if he was patently unhappy that the debate was happening at all. Had there been a definite decision on Byrne's replacement, should it come to that? He wasn't saying. Let's try it another way, then: was Hook training in both sides, the one with Byrne as well as the one without? Edwards thought for a second before replying: "There's someone out there who looks very much like him."Reuse content