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'I thought, who is going to argue with them two, so I picked them'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

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France defence coach Shaun Edwards has explained the logic behind selecting the no-nonsense Paul Willemse and Romain Taofifenua as the pair of forwards responsible for laying down the law to their teammates when it comes to gain line physicality. Willemse, the 29-year-old lock from South Africa, has started all four matches so far this year for the Grand Slam-chasing French, scoring a try in their win over Scotland. 

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Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Taofifenua has appeared on three occasions off the 2022 bench to help bring the French victories home, the second row only missing last Friday’s match in Wales due to covid. 

Only England now stand in the way of France, who are seeking a first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2010, and defence coach Edwards has paid tribute to the bruising influence of a second row duo who set the tone for their pack’s level of physicality. 

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Asked on the latest episode of The Rugby Pod how true was it that Willemse isn’t allowed to go full bore at France training because he bangs up players too much, Edwards said: “We are a better defensive team when Paul is on the pitch. He is a very, very dominant character on the pitch. I gave him the job. 

“I asked him did he want the job to be in charge of the physicality at the advantage line, him and Romain Taofifenua, and they both accepted the job and have done a pretty good job so far in this competition. I thought to myself, who is going to argue with them two, so I picked them. Up there for thinking.” 

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Having forged his Test level reputation coaching Wales for more than a decade under Warren Gatland, Edwards switched to France in 2020 and has now brushed off the suggestion that his English accent was initially difficult for French players to understand.  

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“What was it, 24-0 against England at half-time and that was my first game. I know you’ve said they struggled to understand my tactics but I think it was not too bad. They got a couple of tries in the second half – fair play to England, a top team, they had just come from the World Cup final but what was it, 23-0 or something like that at half-time.”

Asked about Antoine Dupont, the World Rugby player of the year for 2021, Edwards added: “He is an amazing athlete. I have coached some fantastic No9s. Mike Phillips, so strong and big. Matt Dawson used to do judo, he was very, very strong in the tackle area and Rob Howley, I have coached so many really good No9s. 

“Eoin Reddan, so quick between the breakdowns, but Antoine is probably the best athlete in that position I have ever coached. He is just so explosive and so strong. So strong in the tackle and his support play is obviously superb because the pace that he has is undoubted. He is electrically quick.”

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