League god Edwards bows to union's new gladiators

As Wasps prepare to start their Heineken Cup defence tomorrow, their coach tells Chris Hewett why the 15-man game is now the more physical of the two codes
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The Independent Online

Shaun Edwards is not exactly short of medals: the bloke has more decorations than Hampton Court. Eight consecutive Challenge Cup victories, 452 senior appearances, 274 tries, umpteen hat-tricks, 1,148 points... had he never played for anyone but Wigan, he would have been assured of his place in the rugby league pantheon. Thirty-odd caps for Great Britain merely add lustre to the legend. Yet this is the man who identifies last season's Heineken Cup semi-final between Munster and Wasps in Dublin - a namby-pamby game of rugby bloody union - as the greatest contest of his sporting career.

Shaun Edwards is not exactly short of medals: the bloke has more decorations than Hampton Court. Eight consecutive Challenge Cup victories, 452 senior appearances, 274 tries, umpteen hat-tricks, 1,148 points... had he never played for anyone but Wigan, he would have been assured of his place in the rugby league pantheon. Thirty-odd caps for Great Britain merely add lustre to the legend. Yet this is the man who identifies last season's Heineken Cup semi-final between Munster and Wasps in Dublin - a namby-pamby game of rugby bloody union - as the greatest contest of his sporting career.

By way of compounding the heresy, he takes the view that union has become the more physical of the two codes. Before the thought police from Whitehaven or Widnes arrest him on a charge of apostasy, they should understand that Edwards is not interested in point-scoring - not of the verbal kind, at least. "I was never one of those who considered union a soft touch," he insists. "I'll always love league; where I come from, it's king. But I love my union too, and the more I learn, the more respect I have for the people who play it."

Last Monday, as the Wasps players gathered on one of the few greenfield sites in Acton, west London, to prepare for the first stage in the defence of their European title - a mighty clash of cultures with the Betsens, Harinordoquys and Lièvremonts of Biarritz - Edwards was positively glowing with anticipation. Three years into his coaching stint in Dallaglio country, during which period he has helped redefine the principles and revolutionise the techniques of defensive organisation, he discussed the challenges ahead with a passion bordering on the breathless.

"I remember having a pint with Warren Gatland" - the former All Black who, as director of rugby, has guided Wasps to four trophies in two years - "during the summer, and reflecting on last season in Europe," he said. "We agreed that we were incredibly lucky and extremely privileged, just to have been involved in such drama. Perpignan away, Munster at Lansdowne Road, Toulouse in the final at Twickenham. People will talk about those games for years to come, and we were there, right in the front line.

"It wasn't pretty, some of this stuff - Perpignan were a long way outside the law in some of things they did, which I think was probably the result of a premeditated 'play like men' thing that went miles over the top - but when you come through that kind of trial and then get involved in games of the magnitude of Munster and Toulouse, you know you're experiencing something special, something very rare. I believe the Munster match was the best I've encountered in either code of the game - certainly the best in which I've been personally involved. It was the real thing, the whole package."

Edwards is a unique rugby figure; there is little prospect of either sport reproducing his like any time soon. His father, Jack, was himself one of league's chosen few, a revered Warrington player who signed as a 16-year-old and performed brilliantly before suffering a back injury so severe that he very nearly ended up in a wheelchair. Edwards Jnr was equally precocious, captaining England Schools in both codes before agreeing terms at Central Park on his 17th birthday. He made his senior debut less than three weeks later, and stayed put for 15 unprecedentedly successful years.

He was, and remains, as tough as teak. Ask him about his injuries, and he is almost spine-chillingly dismissive. "There was a fractured cheekbone and three operations on my knee," he reports, "but that was about it. Apart from the usual." The usual? "Broken ribs, broken thumbs, busted hands, that sort of thing." So when he talks of the physicality of modern-day union, and places it above league in the batting order - or rather, the battering order - the words are not those of a theorist or a controversialist or a guesser. Edwards is worth listening to because he has paid for his knowledge in blood and breakages.

"Personally, I believe union is more physical than league," he pronounced. "Certainly, there is a greater risk of injury. You see, when union went open, it took what it felt it needed from league - the power and dynamism and fitness, which came from decades of professionalism. Equally importantly, it kept the things that were special to union, that gave the code its character. So now we have a league-style power game grafted on to the heavyweight scrummaging and the contest for the ball at the tackle area. That is one hell of a combination of factors. The breakdown is a scary place to be; it's absolute mayhem in there. When you have big, fit, fast, powerful blokes competing with each other in a very confined space, people are likely to get hurt.

"The consequence of all this is pretty obvious. Careers are going to be shorter. Very few professional players will last 15 years, as the lucky ones could in the past. Conditioning and fitness has improved out of all recognition, but that only goes so far in terms of protection against serious injury. You can put on as much muscle as you like, but you can't strengthen your ligaments. In a contact sport like this, it's almost impossible to balance constant improvements in pace and power against safety. There again, I don't want the game to lose its gladiatorial dimension. I don't like matches where defences are weak and the scoreline reads 48-44. How crap is that?"

Ever the enthusiast, he talks as engagingly about union as any born-and-bred 15-a-sider from Gloucester or Leicester - or far-flung Llanelli or downtown Bloemfontein, come to that. But there is little prospect of him overemphasising the importance of a game of rugby. Perspective is everything to Edwards, a practising Roman Catholic, and with good reason. In 2003, his 20-year-old brother Billy Joe was killed in a road accident. "When you've seen your mother on her hands and knees, crying in the pissing rain... well, what does sport really mean in comparison?" he said, quietly. "People ask me if my faith helps me in rugby. I don't know that it does, particularly. It helps me to help my mum, though. Whatever pain I've been through in the last couple of years, hers has been worse."

Perhaps the challenge of coaching a top-quality side in a series of unforgiving tournaments, while continuing to learn about the intricacies and sophistications of an unusually complex team sport, has helped him remain on an even keel. Edwards openly admits to gaps in his knowledge, hence his reluctance to chase a director of rugby post in the foreseeable future. "I don't crave it at the moment," he said. "I'd be perfectly happy if Warren announced plans to stay here for another 20 years.

"At the moment, I'm getting a tremendous amount of fulfilment from what I do. It's a different kind of fulfilment to that experienced by a player. When you're on the field, you have to be selfish and egotistical. Off the field, the important thing is how you communicate with other people, and how you contribute to what they do. It's equally gratifying, especially in an environment like Wasps, where so much emphasis is placed on loyalty.

"When I look at Lawrence Dallaglio, a one-club man who has been here since his teens, I see someone I admire. I'd have loved to have played in the same team as Lawrence, under his captaincy. He's the best I've come across in terms of leadership. I played league under Graham West and Dean Bell, Ellery Hanley and Gary Schofield - tremendous people, all of them blessed with great strengths. But Lawrence's talks before a match press all the right buttons for me; sometimes, I feel myself getting too emotional and have to leave the dressing-room. And I'm only a coach!"

There is no "only" about it. Those dyed-in-the-wool union buffers who continue to be patronisingly sniffy about the influx of league professionals into "their" game, are on the wrong side of history. Edwards was a good enough league player to command the respect of his union contemporaries, and is a good enough coach to force the Dallaglios and Howleys to shut up and listen. Who are the rest of us to question his increasingly secure position at the forefront of what his peers used to call "the softies' sport"?

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