Wednesday 22 November 2017

Pilgrim returns to the old country

Shaun Edwards returns to Ireland this weekend with Wales having previously played rugby league in a green shirt (inset) ten years ago at Tolka Park
Shaun Edwards returns to Ireland this weekend with Wales having previously played rugby league in a green shirt (inset) ten years ago at Tolka Park
David Kelly

David Kelly

SHAUN Edwards will touch down in Dublin today to renew the historical links which cleave the 41-year-old to this country, a land from which emerged his maternal grandmother, Kitty Collins. "From somewhere way out west," as he often says.

If Warren Gatland has history, so too has Edwards. Ten years ago, during Rugby League's latest attempt to schmooze a sceptical sporting audience, Ireland had emulated Jack Charlton in employing the Granny Rule to cast their net wider.

When this raggle-taggle bunch pitched up in Tolka Park to play France in Ireland's first full Rugby League international, a young and naïve Brian Carney amongst their number, Shaun Edwards was the undoubted star of the evening.

Only 1,511 turned up to watch on a foul evening; Dublin's denizens were more intrigued by Manchester United's televised dismissal of Brondby en route to that year's Champions League success.


Amongst their number was boxer Steve Collins, enthralled that one of his sporting heroes was in Dublin and representing Ireland to boot. The mutual attraction was obvious.

When journalists found Edwards after the match, he was ensconced in the Tolka Park bar, his hands embracing a pint of Guinness as warmly as the old country's welcome towards him was soon to become.

"I felt more and more Irish as the game went on," he enthused. Edwards didn't get back to the London for another four days. Urban myth informs those who dare to listen that he didn't return home for a fortnight.

This week, although Gatland has stressed that he will share a beer with O'Sullivan tomorrow night, Edwards will demur. That is because he has given up drink for Lent, a reflection of the devout Catholicism that, fused with an indefatigable work-rate, has formed both the public and private character of the 41-year-old.

When he shocked the Rugby League world by turning his back on the game eight years ago, rather than plunge directly into coaching, he was following his conscience.

"I went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and met two Irish Franciscans who I got on with really well," he explained at the time. "I told them I'd like to do something to help the poor. One of them, Fr Eamonn O'Driscoll, suggested I offer my services to the sisters (at Southall's Missionaries of Charity centre, a homeless shelter). I just went down and took it from there."

Like many of his generation, his faith was inherited from his family. But, in the same way that he followed his father, Jack, into Rugby League, Edwards' life would be defined by the personal and professional paths that stretched in front of him.

A year before he was born, his father suffered a crippling, career-terminating spinal injury in a match; yet, despite the physical and mental trauma, he still inculcated a love of the game in his son. "Instead of a teddy, I slept with a rugby ball," he recalls.

Jack was 24 and never worked again. He needed four spinal operations merely to ensure he didn't require a wheelchair. That is why, away from publicity's glare, Edwards took time out to spend several hours with young Leicester player Matt Hampson, who suffered a similar injury.

In 2003 his brother, Billie-Joe, 16 years younger and then an apprentice at the Wigan club where Edwards made his name, died in a car crash alongside a team-mate. Edwards' faith was at once rocked to its very core yet also strengthened by this dreadful tragedy.

Irish prop Peter Bracken, a European Cup winner with Wasps in 2004, recalls Edwards' moving pre-final words. "It was only one line but it just hit us like a thunderbolt," he remembers. "'Everything you do, you do for yourself and your family.' We knew where he was coming from. Jesus, it had such a powerful effect. He got quite emotional too."

For a supposed tough nut who never smiles and lost his first tooth as a four-year-old when mis-timing a tackle on the family television, Edwards is as comfortable displaying emotion as he is at withdrawing it.

"It's like he can see through the player, you know, and actually see the person behind," explains Bracken. "Having the key to a player's emotions can also unleash a better-prepared player."

Eoin Reddan this week told of how Edwards introduced him to the idea of reading a book before a match, just to dampen the passion. "I'd over-think sometimes so this was his way of calming yourself down," says Reddan.

"He said that all Celtic players have a natural aggression and sometimes we needed to psych down almost," recalls Bracken. "He'd be trying to gee up the other fellahs by shouting and roaring but whisper to me 'That doesn't apply to you.' He knows what makes every player tick."

Edwards is part tactical expert, part psychological guru and he doesn't suffer fools. "We'd been waiting for someone to tell it like it is for years," according to a Welsh insider. "He told the players at his first meeting that if they miss a tackle, he misses it too; that if they lose a match, he loses it as well. And he ended by saying that should either of those things happen, he'd be very interested to know why."

The Welsh have felt the force of his tongue during the shorter, sharper sessions this year, with Stephen Jones and Ian Gough reputedly claiming to have escaped censure.

Bracken is familiar with the theme. "Yeah, he'd lambaste you, but not for the sake of it. He'd take you aside afterwards. But you wouldn't make the same mistake again. He wasn't afraid to show his emotions. He'd tell you how much it meant to him to win a match."

Whatever the result, Edwards knows for certain it will not be a matter of life and death.

Edwards: The Words of Wisdom

On his determination

"Everything I do, really, is to try and make my mother and father proud of me."

On desire

"I'm a big believer that to rest is to rust."

On his manager

"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."

On Wales

"Ireland's loss was Warren's gain and my gain as a coach."

Edwards: The Lowdown

Born: Wigan, Oct 18, 1966

Played for: Wigan Rugby League club 1983-96, London Broncos and Bradford

Won: 32 winners' medals 1984-97 in 452 appearances

Caps: 36 for Great Britain, scoring 16 tries

Retired: April 2000

Coaching career: Joined Wasps Rugby Union club coaching staff in 2001. Became head coach in 2005 Trophies: Champions 2002-03, 2003-04, 2004-05; Heineken Cup winners 2003-04, 2006-07; European Shield winners 2002-03; Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup winners 2005-06

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport