Ireland v Wales: Edwards lets his head rule his heart in a game of emotions

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Shaun Edwards brings a lot to the table as a coach; specifically, when we meet, a huge diary embossed with "2008". He flicks it open and I can see concise Biro-written notes of training sessions filling almost every page, so no helpful clue as to how the head coach of Wasps and defence coach of Wales is dividing his time. "The rest of it is up here," said Edwards, tapping his forehead and snapping the big book shut.

"This is going to be one of my busiest weeks but it's nothing too severe." No one in Wales is complaining about this unusual marriage of club and country; not after three wins out of three against England, Scotland and Italy under Edwards and his boss, Warren Gatland.

The idea of working with a Test team part-time was a carrot first dangled by Edwards under England's noses two years ago. England did not go for it then and this season – with Mike Ford in place – the Rugby Football Union offered Edwards a role with the England Saxons. "I chose Wales because I want to improve as a coach and I want to coach the British Lions," said Edwards.

From the 41-year-old Wiganer, whose personal life has been pockmarked with problems and downright tragedy, it came across as not arrogant but an understandable counter-balance. If that's what you want, Shaun, go for it.

So the upshot is that Edwards has missed the odd training session with both Wasps and Wales, while taking his pick of the Cardiff-Paddington railway run or motoring up and down the M4 in his hefty 4x4: "My brother died in a car crash and my mother insisted I get the biggest, safest car going."

Last weekend, Edwards was in the Millennium Stadium enjoying the 47-8 win over Italy while Wasps were beating Bristol. "Don't forget, this will only happen when there are internationals," Edwards said. "This week I'll coach Wales on Monday and Tuesday, and Wasps on Wednesday and Friday, which are always our two main sessions. On the Friday night I'll fly out to Ireland.

"Obviously if we've got the Test match then I'll fly back on the Sunday and go straight to a Wasps game. After seven seasons at Wasps, I probably needed a new impetus, and I think that will be good for the club's players too."

Wales are using the same defensive systems as Wasps, so there are few practical problems. Edwards hailed the Tom Shanklin interception try which most regarded as a turning point in the Italy match as the result of a cumulative effect of keeping the ball in play, a very bold game plan in which watertight defence – particularly the "kick-chase" – is crucial. Will Wales try the same against Ireland at Croke Park?

"We are underdogs going to Ireland," Edwards replied. "It could be more of an arm-wrestle for a while; they give a bit, we give a bit. Our scrum came through very well against Italy. [Loosehead prop] Gethin Jenkins hit 38 rucks, made eight tackles and did a great job stopping the Italian drive. But Ireland love a good maul, don't they? That's certainly the way I expect them to set off, with a mauling game."

Wasps have been a second family to Edwards, a bolt hole and a comfort blanket through the loss of brother Billy Joe in early 2003. Edwards has some distant ancestral connections with Wales, but nothing like as strong as his English and Irish attachments. So what was his gut feeling when Shane Williams – a player of small stature whom Edwards admires immensely – ran in his two tries against the Italians? "Totally focused on the game," Edwards says, firmly.

"If you're asking about emotional attachment, I'm always emotionally attached to a game of rugby. Rugby is an emotional game. If Wales is my team, a team that I've coached all week, with one of my best mates in rugby as head coach, I'll be emotionally attached."

His rapport with Gatland is obvious in the TV cutaways of them watching matches. A rapport quite different from, well, let's think, oh yes, Gatland's with Eddie O'Sullivan, the Wales head coach's opposite number next Saturday. The coming week will be dominated by recollection of O'Sullivan succeeding Gatland in November 2001: this is the first time they will have crossed paths since then.

Gatland's move to Wasps was announced a few days after his IRFU contract, which he had expected to be renewed, was terminated. Edwards was waiting for him, having joined Wasps in the summer of 2001.

"Ireland's loss was without a shadow of a doubt Wasps' gain and my gain as a coach," said Edwards, sotto voce. "Warren's a big boy, he can look after himself. It's not a match between Warren and Eddie O'Sullivan, it's a match between 30 players."

Edwards prefers to enthuse about a Catholic church close to Wales's Vale of Glamorgan hotel where he observed 10 o'clock mass the morning after the Scotland and Italy matches. "It's really nice, some good singing," he said, though the tremulous testimony of Shanklin and others is that Edwards can do fire and brimstone when it suits.

"Training was taking three hours before," said Adam Jones, the tighthead prop. "Now it's shorter and more intense and if you make a mistake you get told, there's no molly-coddling."

Still Gatland and his sidekick would not be themselves if they didn't find time to get out for an occasional pint in Cardiff. That is to say, Gatland has been having the pint. Edwards has given up drinking for Lent. "That's very frustrating, watching him drinking," he laughed.

Life and times

Name: Shaun Edwards OBE

Born: Wigan, 18 October 1966

Early years: Captained England Schools in both codes. Signed for Wigan on 17th birthday

Rugby league career: Wigan 1983-96, 467 appearances, 274 tries; 37 winners' medals, including eight Championships and nine Challenge Cups. Also played for Balmain Tigers, London Broncos and Bradford Bulls. 36 Great Britain caps, 16 tries. Played in 1992 and '95 World Cups. Retired in 2000.

Rugby union coaching: Joined Wasps in 2001, head coach '02. Premiership champions '03, '04, '05; European Cup winners '04, '07; European Challenge Cup winners '03.

See Wales take on Ireland at Croke Park next Saturday, BBC1, kick-off 1.15pm