Edwards promises to be a 'big hit'
January 18, 2008
"I would guess our tackle count was twice as high as theirs and everybody was so committed even Barry John got carried away and tried to join in - breaking his nose for his trouble." John Taylor talks to Shaun Edwards
I must confess I was just a little disbelieving when I read that Shaun Edwards had studied Wales's results all the way back to the 70s and had already spoken to some past players about the historical importance of defence in the great years.
I even phoned a couple of old team-mates to check whether he had been in touch and was not surprised when they said they had certainly not spoken to him.
Then, just as I was cynically consigning his words to the 'good sound bite' bin, the phone rang and it was the man himself wondering if we could have a chat.
'Sure,' I said feeling flattered and he was off and running.
'Basically, I've looked at the defensive statistics all the way back to the great days of the 70s and every time Wales came top or narrowly second they won the Championship. If they finished third or worse they didn't.
'That was true all the way through including the last Grand Slam in 2005,' he says matter of factly.
I was not about to argue - there were few figures available while I was playing except for goal kicking, scrums and line-outs - and even that must have been a tester in the infamous Wales v Scotland game in 1963 (before my time - I hasten to add) when Clive Rowlands kicked every time he received the ball and the line-out count was 111.
Statistical analysis was definitely a thing of the future and, with no video-tape, even such a meticulous coach as Carwyn James, had to rely on memory and a general feel for the way the game had gone.
With hindsight (all the old film is now on tape or DVD) Edwards and his cohorts can now look back with greater accuracy than we could have dreamt of and, of course, he is right.
Gareth Edwards, Barry John and Gerald Davies, three of the greatest ever attacking players, all started their international careers in the 1966/67 season and they were joined the following year by Maurice Richards and Keri Jones, two of the fastest and most potent wingers you could wish for.
But Wales did not achieve any real success until 1969 when JPR Williams and Mervyn Davies added the vital defensive ingredient we were missing. It helped that JPR was also the first modern attacking fullback but his contribution in defence was even more important.
The year of 1971 is regarded as being one of Wales's greatest - a Grand Slam was followed by the Lions beating New Zealand in a series for the only time ever with more than half the side made up of Welshmen - all the talk and excitement surrounded the great tries we scored but it was defence that made the difference.
In the Grand Slam campaign two games stand out. We almost lost the second game of the Championship, against Scotland, because we defended so poorly, shipping a couple of really soft tries just when we appeared to be (and felt) totally in control - we scraped home 19-18 - and we won the final game in Paris because we tackled our hearts out as the French threatened to overwhelm us.
I would guess our tackle count was twice as high as theirs and everybody was so committed even Barry John got carried away and tried to join in - breaking his nose for his trouble.
It was the same story on the Lions Tour. We won the first Test purely on the strength of our tackling, let ourselves down badly in the second Test and lost, only to put in such a committed performance in the third Test that New Zealand were never really in it.
This is the point Edwards is determined to get across. 'Even in those heady days success was built on a rock solid defence,' he says. 'And although we won't be championing negative rugby we want the whole of the Welsh nation to be talking about the big hit and the aggression associated with defence.'
He says he would rather be the attacking coach but in the meantime he is determined to change Wales from the exciting but brittle side of recent seasons - prepared to attack from anywhere without thinking through the consequences - into a mean machine that makes the opposition work for every point.
'When you score an average of around 20 points a game you should be winners,' he notes as an aside.
After half an hour I am completely onside. I now know why Warren Gatland was determined to get him on board - here is a man with a plan that makes sense.
After a couple of seasons where one could be forgiven for believing player power ruled life is going to be much more challenging.