x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A master code breaker

Shaun Edwards, captain of the most successful team in the history of his sport, is an exceptional tactician who has made it to the top in both forms of rugby.


Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week William Johnson looks at rugby's Shaun Edwards.

Twenty-five years ago a signing on fee of £35,000 (Dh200,000) for a schoolboy rugby prodigy made front page rather than back page news. Untried in the senior ranks of either code but an outstanding prospect in both, Shaun Edwards was hot property. Rugby union clubs were supposedly restricted from making payments to players in those days but several of them were working out a way round that amateurism to entice Edwards to join them.

Instead the bold payment came from Wigan Rugby League Club who wallowed in the media coverage in celebration of their exciting but risky acquisition. Those entrepreneurs from the 13-a-side code need not have worried. Edwards, who signed the forms on his 17th birthday proved an inspirational purchase and became instrumental in a golden era of dominance for the Cherry and Whites. Edwards, who was England schoolboy captain at both league and union, went on to give 13 years of sterling service to Wigan and was a keystone of the all-conquering team that won eight championships and nine Challenge Cups in that time.

Comfortable at either scrum-half or stand-off, he was soon made captain of the most successful team in the history of his sport and went on to make 452 appearances for his club before bowing out in 1997. Edwards has gone through life preaching the gospel that to succeed you have to be prepared to suffer. "No pain, no gain," has become a catchphrase he uses to inspire those seeking to emulate him on the field of play.

It was no small wonder that Edwards was prepared to risk life and limb in one of the most physical of sports because lesser mortals would have been put off by what happened to his father Jack Edwards, who was a key figure with the Warrington league team a generation earlier. Edwards senior was crippled on the field at the age of 24 and has never worked since after undergoing four spinal operations.

After completing those 13 triumphant years with Wigan, Edwards junior had brief spells with London Broncos and Bradford Bulls before trying his hand at coaching. He made the transition with consummate ease, earning a reputation as a teaching master in both codes which he enhanced this year by helping Wales to achieve a Six Nations Grand Slam while keeping his club London Wasps in the vanguard of the English game.

His "defection" to the Welsh camp brought condemnation from England's World Cup winning scrum-half Matt Dawson who said it was "a crime that the best coach in the world had been lost to his country". England had responded to the threat of losing one of their finest ambassadors to one of their fiercest international rivals by making Edwards what many regarded as an insulting offer to coach the second string Saxons team.

Lingering prejudices by union's Twickenham hierarchy towards refugees from the former professional ranks of league were considered to be behind the snub. Edwards dealt with the situation as professionally as he has coped with any presented to him and he declared that his roots were with England but his job was to help coach Wales and so his commitment was to their national coach Warren Gatland, whom he had worked with at Wasps.

A long-term relationship with the singer Heather Small, of "M People" prevented him from accepting the chance to coach Great Britain's rugby league team whom he had represented as a player 32 times. He wanted to stay in the south of England to be closer to his son. Previously he had a similarly close relationship to his brother Billy-Joe, who was 16 years younger. Shaun was devastated when Billy Joe, also a promising rugby player, was killed in a car crash in 2003.

Edwards, who has strong religious beliefs, still talks to Billy-Joe and was particularly vocal on the day of the England v Wales match at the start of this year. It would have been Billy-Joe's 25th birthday. Shaun recalls making "Happy Birthday" greetings before telling his departed brother: "We are going to need a lot of help today." Initially that help was not forthcoming as England set out to give the Welsh a Twickenham thrashing but in an extraordinary transformation they stormed back to make their convert Edwards an instant hero and go on to enjoy a season as memorable as any in their illustrious history.

wjohnson@thenational.ae Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Edwards is the all-time best, text G36 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday December 25.