France defence coach Shaun Edwards reflects on his career to date
For four years, everything in French rugby was geared towards one objective: lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil. After falling short in such heartbreaking fashion, beaten 29-28 by eventual champions South Africa in the quarter-finals, the question now is what happens next?
Luckily for les Bleus, they have a man who knows what it feels like to rebuild for a second World Cup cycle. In fact, in Shaun Edwards they have someone who has been part of the same set-up for well over a decade, while still managing to get his message across.
Related: France Six Nations squad
Edwards’s experience with Wales in the Six Nations campaign immediately following a World Cup is highly impressive.
First time around in 2008, as part of a new coaching staff with Warren Gatland, Wales won a Grand Slam. They did so again in 2012, off the back of a one-point loss of their own at the World Cup – coincidentally to France. While they couldn’t make it a hat-trick in 2016, having to settle for second in the table behind England, there is no question that when it came to the start of a new cycle, Edwards was part of a team that knew how to handle the transition.
So what will be the key? The Englishman believes the most important aspect is to realise that just because France did not win the World Cup, it does not mean that everything they were doing was wrong.
“I did 12 years with Wales and did okay there,” he explains. “When we came back from the 2011 World Cup, we got a Grand Slam the next year and won it again the next year.
“We didn’t win every game during that two-year period but we won the vital ones during the Six Nations. For me, that’s the competition I always judge myself on really. It’s the only one where you’ve had the same preparation.
“The temptation is to rip up what you’ve done before and start it all again just because you haven’t won the World Cup. But we lost by one point against the eventual winners. We lost by one point with a couple of critical decisions that went against us. I’m not criticising the referee in any shape or form but we played very, very well. With the exception of one game when our second team played (against Uruguay), I can’t think of one game where I walked away and thought, ‘we didn’t play very well there’. You have to remember that a lot of things that you have been doing have been working.”
Edwards, 57, is one of three holdovers from the previous coaching staff, along with forwards coach William Servat and the big boss, Fabien Galthié.
Galthié’s coaching staff including Shaun Edwards
Attack coach Laurent Labit and lineout coach Karim Ghezal have departed to work together in charge of Stade Français, while head of performance Thibault Giroud is part of Yannick Bru’s set-up at Bordeaux-Bègles. Last but not least, Raphaël Ibañez, who previously formed a double act with Galthié, is moving into a different role within the French federation that will involve a wider purview and less focus on the men’s senior side.
He is not being replaced but former Stade hooker Laurent Sempéré has stepped into Ghezal’s shoes, while long-time Perpignan coach Patrick Arlettaz is now working alongside Galthié on the French attack. Last but not least, former France full-back Nicolas Jeanjean has taken over Giroud’s position, having worked under him for the past four years.
With Sempéré and Arlettaz both hailing from Perpignan, and Edwards based ten miles away in Canet-en-Roussillon, the Englishman immediately started planning a barbecue for the trio to watch some Top 14 action at his home to work on each of their interdependent tasks for the team.
Prior to that though, he needed a break from coaching and from the sport. The RWC exit to South Africa was among the toughest defeats he has experienced.
Just as they went on to do against England and New Zealand, the Springboks came through by the narrowest possible margin. Edwards can only admire what the back-to-back world champions achieved, but it doesn’t take away from the frustration at how close France came.
“Sometimes you get a sense of injustice. I thought we played some magnificent rugby, both in attack and defence throughout the competition. But South Africa, fair play to them, they found a way to win the game, which is not unusual for them. They continued in that vein, winning every game by one point. Due credit to South Africa. But we’re obviously aggrieved in some certain ways. It’s probably one of… a very, very difficult loss for us and for me.
“Our attackers caused a lot of problems for the defence. They posed a lot of problems for our defence with a different tactic, the up-and-under. There are many different ways to score tries in rugby and you only get the same points.”
So would he do anything differently? There has certainly been no second-guessing on his part.
“Nothing, I thought everything we did was aligned to winning,” he replies. “We beat New Zealand in the first game and I thought our performance against Italy was outstanding. You have to remember we only beat them by one score the last time we played them. I think the real France turned up on that night.
“I don’t really think that we could have done anything more. The fitness in Monaco (at France’s pre-World Cup training camp) was a very high standard. The guys trained extremely hard and were in great shape.
“That was proven in the first game against New Zealand. It was played in unbelievable heat. It’s one of the hottest games I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve played in Papua New Guinea, in North Queensland, and that was boiling. So I don’t think there is much more we could have done.
“Fair play to South Africa. In rugby you get knocked down and you’ve got to get back up off the floor, shake your opponent’s hand and wish them luck. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
The coaching staff has changed a little, and it will be similar among the playing squad. In the aftermath of the South Africa defeat, Galthié revealed that prop Uini Atonio and second-row Romain Taofifénua would be retiring from the international game, but the La Rochelle tighthead has since changed his mind.
Emmanuel Meafou, Toulouse’s giant lock, is now eligible and tipped for a first cap, while a few of the U20s stars who led France to World Cup glory in South Africa last summer are pushing hard for senior honours – notably Perpignan lock Posolo Tuilagi and La Rochelle fly-half Hugo Reus, both of whom are still eligible for the U20s.
Reus’s half-back partner in South Africa was Clermont’s Baptiste Jauneau, perhaps the player who looked most Test-ready. A couple of injuries have slowed his progress, but a strong January could vault him into consideration.
That is in large part because the one big name who will be missing for France is their skipper and best player, Antoine Dupont, who is focusing his energy on his bid for Olympic glory with the France Sevens teams.
That means a new captain and new scrum-half, while Romain Ntamack is also still out with the knee injury that deprived him of participating in the World Cup. Despite that, Edwards is backing some newcomers to stake a claim, with Racing’s Nolann Le Garrec looking to challenge the likes of Maxime Lucu, Baptiste Couilloud and Baptiste Serin for Dupont’s No 9 jersey.
They will have to hit the ground running, opening their campaign in Marseille against defending champions Ireland, with Edwards’s former Wigan Warriors team-mate Andy Farrell having suffered similar World Cup torment after the narrow quarter-final defeat by New Zealand.
“I’ve not really caught up with Faz,” says Edwards. “You need your space after a loss. He’s a Wiganer like me and I know what a competitor he is. He’ll have been feeling very similar to how I was feeling.
“You just want to go home and be with your family. You want to go away on holiday and get back to normal life. Luckily I’ve got another job, which is being a dad. It’s probably the most important job. That is what I’ve tried to do, immerse myself in being a dad and trying to connect with my two little daughters.”
A re-energised Shaun Edwards is back and ready to show that World Cup heartache doesn’t signal the end of the line for this French team.
This Shaun Edwards article first appeared in the free Six Nations magazine in the February 2024 edition of Rugby World.