It is lunchtime on New Year's Eve at the Wasps training ground, which in the freezing white landscape resembles less West Acton and more West Antarctica, and Shaun Edwards runs towards the clubhouse wearing that trademark expression which has always suggested he is on his way to settle an argument. Within a few minutes he is doing exactly that.
Edwards does not take too kindly to the insinuations that he has "perhaps, just perhaps Shaun" spread himself a little too thinly in taking on the head coach duties with Wasps, with those of the defensive coach duties with Wales, with those of the assistant coach duties with the Lions. As Wasps have stuttered and spluttered their way into the unfamiliar territory of ninth place in the Premiership, Edwards has heard the inevitable mutterings and they have clearly hurt.
"When we lost a few early in the season I had an inkling that people were questioning my commitment to Wasps," he said. "Now if people want to say I'm a rubbish coach that's different. But if anyone is questioning my commitment I'll show them my diary. I'll show them me getting up at 5.30am to drive back from Wales to Wasps to take a coaching session. And I'll show them that I missed just two training sessions at Wasps during the whole of the autumn internationals. So, I'm more than willing to have a one-on-one discussion with them and I'll explain to them exactly what my week entails."
In fairness to that sceptical element at Adams Park, they would not be fickle sports fans unless they did not jerk their knees sufficiently enough to lay some of the blame at the door of a couple of coaches who have all too recently accepted other roles. While Edwards joined Wales a year ago and then proceeded to be such an influential figure in their Grand Slam, Ian McGeechan, the Wasps director of rugby, was chosen to lead the Lions to South Africa for a second time. All it was to take then was for the Premiership champions to lag a bit and the tongues would wag a bit. Edwards, however, is having none of it.
"My duties with the Lions so far has consisted of one press conference," he pointed out. "And we've got one meeting in January and then that's it. Yeah, we're picking the team in April but I won't be much a part of that, Geech will be the sole selector really. As regards Wales, well some of the ideas I picked up from them last year were absolutely vital to us winning the championship."
As, presumably, they would be vital to any silverware garnered this time around. It is always unwise to write off Wasps, but this far out it is difficult to see anything other than the first barren season in seven for a club figuring in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. If the preoccupation with Danny Cipriani at the front of the newspapers has been one unwanted distraction, then seemingly every other day brings with it another alleged contract rumpus as some 18 players head towards the completion of their current deals in the summer. No club worthy of its marketing department has failed to be linked with Cipriani, while those two titanic young talents of the England back row, James Haskell and Tom Rees, are also, reportedly, being heavily courted. Worrying times for the black and gold brigade? Only on the face of it, maintains Edwards.
"The situation's probably not much different here than to any other club in the Premiership," he said. "Obviously with Wasps being so successful over the last six years, it's going to attract the stories. It's a bit like Manchester United and the big football teams. If an international player is out of contract and he's not yet signed, well it's news isn't it? All I can ensure the Wasps fans is that if someone leaves we'll get someone else in to fill that position. Obviously we don't want our lads to leave, particularly the lads who've come through our system. That's something we've always prided ourselves on at Wasps – developing the players for English rugby. And long may it continue."
But how long can it all continue, the incredible success story of Wasps that many do indeed trace back to Edwards joining the club in 2001 and installing his blitz defence system? Already it has survived the departure of one coach – Gatland in 2005 – but has last season's retirement of Lawrence Dallaglio sounded a more depressingly lasting knell? When the head coach's position is being held up for scrutiny – as Edwards' has been, not just amid all the Wales whispers, but also when Gloucester's Dean Ryan was being touted as the possible new High Priest of High Wycombe – then everything is plainly not going as swimmingly as it has been. A victim of his own staggering achievements perhaps, but as Edwards himself admitted: "If you can't handle that expectation then you shouldn't be at the level."
Edwards' own expectations are the stuff of legend, as well as of the odd training ground scar. They have long appreciated at Wasps what they have only recently learned in Wales – that an Edwards practice session only alters from a game in a couple of respects: 1) There's no crowd and 2) During a game a manic 42-year-old pocket rocket can't suddenly pop up and scream at you for missing a tackle. And in West London this last week the preparations have been particularly intense.
Edwards says the next four weeks "will define our season" as Wasps try not only to re-enter the Premiership play-off picture but also qualify from their Heineken Cup group. Nothing can be won in this time, but the season can be lost and Edwards' attitude appeared to suggest the players had, in no uncertain terms, been advised as to the make-and-breakability of the next month, starting tomorrow with the visit of Harlequins.
What Edwards was certainly not prepared to do was continue his lament which greeted Wasps' 31-3 defeat at Sale on Boxing Day. Frustrated at seeing a winning four-match resurgence reversed in such embarrassing fashion, Edwards tore into the farcical red tape which forced Wasps to make nine changes in order to comply with the Rugby Football Union's Elite Performance Squad ruling that requires international players to be rested for one game between Premiership rounds nine and 11. No other club suffers as much in this regard as Wasps, basically because no other club provide so many players to England. When McGeechan first looked at the Premiership fixtures he figured that Wasps would be well short of full-strength for 12 out of 22 of them because of international call-ups and EPS rulings. It would make John Bull himself question the shrewdness of developing so many English players.
"I'll let you say that," said Edwards when probed to expand on the madness of it all. "I don't want to say it as it upsets sponsors and things like that. However, I don't know any other competition in the world where it happens. But listen, I don't want to sound like a whinger. We've always had an image at this club of dust yourself off, put yourself back in, don't moan, get on with it. That's what we have to do at the moment. We've got a down to earth attitude of being hard-working and just trying to make the best of whatever situation is put in front of us."
The situation now is particularly demanding, even more so than when they were down in 10th place in the Premiership in the October of last season. Famously, they came through with one of their customary late charges then, but what will surely make it such a more challenging breakneck dash this time around is the strength and the depth of the opposition. Tomorrow's visitors are a case in point, a never-say die outfit almost unrecognisable from all its earlier Harlequins forms.
"I probably can't remember a more competitive Premiership, no, and that's just what they want to see – so many games decided by less than seven points" said Edwards. "And I think if the salary cap is brought in and administered even more stringently then it's going to be even more competitive. The thing about the salary cap is that there has to be a professional game of rugby in 20 years' time for our sons and daughters to enjoy And if the salary cap is the way to stop clubs from self-destructing for short-term gain or whatever, then so be it."
It is a view that may not exactly tally with all of the would-be Beckhams on the Wasps payroll, and certainly flies in the face of Edwards' declaration earlier in the conversation – "I'm no politician, just a simple rugby coach". In truth, ever since he was a community-minded 18-year-old who taped over the British Coal logo on his Great Britain shirt in support of the striking miners, Edwards has always stuck up for what he believes. He believes in Wasps, believes in Wales and in one short statement about the latter's November Test victory over Australia he reveals everything one needs to know about the basis of his sporting beliefs.
"That mental breakthrough was vitally important for Wales," he said. "We'd been so close [against South African and New Zealand] and been brave losers. But I know Gatts [Warren Gatland] pretty good and he doesn't like being a brave loser. He likes being a winner. And that's probably why we get on so well."
It is also doubtlessly why Wales has so readily come to revere the duo, although the pair are not nearly naïve enough to regard this respect as unconditional. If Edwards has been reminded of one thing from these first criticisms he has received at Wasps, it must be of the unbearable lightness of being a success. You have to prove yourself over and over, the last glory making the next all the more necessary. For his part, Edwards sounds just grateful for the chance. For both chances, even.
"Phil Vickery [the Wasps prop] said the other day after signing his contract that he felt very fortunate as a lot of people are losing their jobs at the moment," says Edwards. "And that's how I feel. I'm very grateful I've got jobs at the moment with both Wasps and Wales. You know, I was out of work for 18 months after I finished playing rugby and they were dark days for me. If I ever feel like I'm too stretched – which, believe me, I never have done – then I'll just look back at those days. When the highlight of my day was going to the shops for the paper."
Moving On Up: Edwards' essentials
*Born 18 Oct 1966, Wigan
1989 Balmain Tigers
1997 London Broncos
1998 Bradford Bulls
1998-2000 London Broncos
36 caps for Great Britain
2008- Wales (assistant)
*Joined Wasps as a coach, later taking over as head coach to replace Warren Gatland. He also manages the academy side and now assists Gatland with Wales.Reuse content