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FEATURE Are the knives out for Shaun Edwards?

Are the knives out for Shaun Edwards?
5 months ago

Ah, it’s a fickle business, professional rugby. It was only a few months ago Shaun Edwards was the subject of many a glowing Gallic newspaper profile. ‘Monsieur Défense’ was the English genius who was going to mastermind France’s World Cup victory.

Six months later and is that the sound of knives being sharpened? ‘Shaun Edwards, called into question,’ was a headline in last week’s Midi Olympique.

What followed was an ungracious analysis of Edwards’ influence on France since his appointment after the 2019 World Cup. Sure, said Midi, his ‘ultra-aggressive system’ had paid dividends early, culminating in the 2022 Grand Slam (France’s first Six Nations title since 2010) but it had been downhill thereafter. “Something has undeniably changed,” concluded the newspaper. “The proof is since the start of 2023, the Bleus have conceded more than three tries on six occasions, whereas this had never happened to them in the first three years.”

France
France squeezed past Scotland in a nerve-shredding finale at Murrayfield to earn their first Six Nations win of the year (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Midi Olympique insinuated Edwards was an outsider among the coaching staff, stating: “The Englishman… appeared somewhat disconnected from the rest of the staff during the last World Cup, spending long hours on his own.”

The question the paper was raising was Edwards’ future. It noted against Scotland, France’s fly-half, the defensively weak Matthieu Jalibert, was back defending in his normal channel, ably assisted on his inside by number eight Gregory Alldritt. Edwards had last year positioned Jalibert in the centre defensively but according to Midi, Fabien Galthié and his new forwards coach, Laurent Sempéré, ‘imposed’ the switch back to the 10 channel. “Should these choices be seen as a rejection of Shaun Edwards?” wondered Midi. “A little, probably.”

Edwards was described as “tetchy”, “angry” and “prickly” as he defended his record in light of the record 38-17 defeat by Ireland.

There’s no doubt the negativity which has enveloped French rugby since they lost to South Africa by a point in the World Cup quarter-final has affected Edwards. On the eve of the tournament in France he was revelling in the hothouse environment, as he explained in a newspaper column: “I can feel the buzz wherever we go. There are fans waiting for autographs outside the hotel and the lads’ faces are on billboards all over town. I love it… I love the pressure we’re feeling now. It’s a privilege.”

Wind forward five months to the press conference on the eve of the Scotland match and Edwards again spoke of pressure but without any exuberance. He was described as “tetchy”, “angry” and “prickly” as he defended his record in light of the record 38-17 defeat by Ireland on the opening weekend of the championship. “We had the best defence at the World Cup,” he reminded reporters. “In the last four years we have a 75% win ratio, 80% sometimes. It (the Ireland game) is the only time I feel we did not perform anywhere near the level we normally do.”

Edwards stated his belief against Scotland the French would be a different team to the one which subsided to Ireland; they didn’t lose in Edinburgh, thanks to that TMO ruling, but nor they impress in the 20-16 win.

Dan Sheehan
France suffered a desperate shellacking by rampant Ireland on the Six Nations’ opening night in Marseille three weeks ago (Photo By Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

Edwards has reportedly offered the French squad some “constructive criticism” following the Scotland game, and it will be a relief that next up for the Bleus are Italy, who failed to score a point against Ireland in Dublin.

It’s preposterous there is media speculation about Edwards’ position. Those journalists casting doubt on his ability should cast their minds back a few years, to the shambles that was the Bleus in the 2010s.

For eight years (2012 to 2019) France failed to finish in the top two of the Six Nations, and they were regularly hammered by the southern hemisphere giants, including a 62-13 walloping inflicted by the All Blacks in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final.

Edwards has been arguably the most significant factor in the revival of France this decade. It’s not just what he brings to the defensive structure of the squad, but also his personality, a hard-nosed no-nonsense Northern attitude. Jonathan Danty, whose international career has finally fulfilled its potential since Edwards joined the French set-up, described the Englishman as “energetic and meticulous” in his coaching. In addition, he also “helps us to better manage the emotion of the matches… his vigour and body language express exactly the attitude he asks us to have on the pitch”.

Does Edwards’ nationality make him more vulnerable in the event France’s performances don’t pick up and a sacrificial lamb is required?

The players admire and respect Edwards. One unidentified member of the French squad told Midi Olympique “Shaun is still very valuable to us” because of the way “he communicates, the way he constantly reminds us of the importance of going up hard, fighting and continuing to defend after the tackle”.

France are struggling in the Six Nations for several reasons: the absence of several key players – Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack (stronger defensively than Jalibert) Thibaud Flament and Anthony Jelonch – is one; fatigue is another and there’s also the new coaches, Sempéré and Patrick Arlettaz, in charge of attack. France have scored four tries in two matches and made eight line breaks; only Italy have made fewer. But Arlettaz hasn’t been subjected to the same scrutiny as Edwards.

Does his nationality make him more vulnerable in the event France’s performances don’t pick up and a sacrificial lamb is required? French rugby is very parochial. They alone among the six nations have never employed a foreigner as head coach. It’s the same old faces on the Top 14 coaching circuit and one is sometimes left with the impression it’s a bit of a Gallic Old Boys network. Presidents, directors and coaches often go back years, to when they played together in the amateur days.

Laporte Galthie France tweet
Fabien Galthie and Bernard Laporte were close allies (Photo by Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

It is not just parochialism which runs through French ruby; so does politics, which are never far from the surface. Edwards was courted by Bernard Laporte, president of the FFR in 2019, who expressed his “honour” when the Englishman signed what is believed to be a lucrative contract.

Laporte is no more, having resigned in dishonour last year after his conviction by a Paris court of corruption. His successor, Florian Grill, is Laporte’s mortal enemy and recently blamed him for the “catastrophic” finances of the FFR. Belts are being tightened, even to the extent that in Edinburgh the France squad didn’t stay in their usual luxury hotel in order to save a few euros.

Laporte was also responsible for hiring the mercurial Galthié as head coach. The pair were close and Galthié paid tribute to his former boss after France had inflicted a record 53-10 defeat on England last year.

At the time Galthié was the man with the golden touch and he could say what he liked. That luxury vanished on the night France lost to South Africa. He is no longer invulnerable and nor is Edwards, who was described by one leading French newspaper in 2020 as having “golden hands”.

It would be an act of extreme folly if the FFR did make any changes to the coaching staff between now and the 2027 World Cup. A rugby squad, like a business, will always suffer the odd setback as it develops and evolves. The trick is not to panic or give in to pressure, and above all, to ignore the press.

Comments

10 Comments
J
Jon 150 days ago

France didnt have their starting 9 and 10 in the RWC or 6 nations. Wait for the fall clash with NZ to take measure on how good/bad the starting team actually is. France doesn’t have the depth / interchangeability of RSA/ABs

Will Dupont be the slow fatty in 7s? Let’s find out

r
ramon 150 days ago

Is Galthie still the best coach France could have? Was Galthie the main force behind the French revival, or was it the Magnifique Dupont? Without the superstar 9, France look ordinaire.

J
JC 151 days ago

I don’t think that Shawn Edwards is in danger.
I know, as a french person, what he apports to the french side.
Morover, that is not in our culture to fire coaches before the end of their contract.
Look at Phillipe Saint André, who led France between 2012 & 2015, with three 4th place, a wooden spoon in 2013 and a catastrophic loose 63-12 against NZ in RWC2015 quarterfinal.
In the history of French national team, the only coach who has been dismissed in the pro era was Guy Novès after a draw against Japan in Paris and the weaker percentage of win ever for a French coach. But the main reason of this dismissed was political. Laporte who just took the lead of FFR was an enemy of Novès.
At the end, I think that any change under pressure would be a big mistake.
France will recover force, flair and confidence soon.
No doubt.

T
Tom 151 days ago

The effect of Shaun Edwards on France shouldn't be underestimated. He turned them very quickly from a team lacking passion and fitness into a tough, professional side just as he did with Wales. They do seem to have lost some of that determination in recent times, I wonder if it's because Edwards is losing his enthusiasm after a long career or if the rest of the coaches are looking for a scapegoat and are reducing his influence.

T
Turlough 152 days ago

Scotland generally score more than 16 when playing France in Murrayfield. It was all about getting the win there. I know SA beat France but they were living off scraps and France’s level in that match was the highest of anything in the RWC. Two tries conceded from X field Garryowens and one off a questionable turnover. A little shoring up and they are one of the greatest teams of all -time. I think they will rip it all up though.

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