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France v Ireland: Edwards and Farrell – a code-breaking duo

Farrell and Edwards’ relationship as team-mates, friends and rivals stretches 30 years

This evening’s little tete-a-tete between France and Ireland could well be decided by a moment of genius or individualism from one of the world-class players on show which will be beyond the best laid plans of the two coaching tickets.

Then again, it could be that the little details on which the coaches prepare their teams will sway the outcome. Perhaps it might even be a combination of both.

There’s no doubt that since assuming the mantles of head coach after the 2019 World Cup, Fabien Galthié and Andy Farrell, along with their assistants, have had transformative effects on these French and Irish teams.

Bringing in the most complete coaching ticket France have had in the professional era, Galthié’s impact has been the more dramatic, although by bringing in Mike Catt and latterly Paul O’Connell while also reshaping the personnel, Farrell has also subtly re-invented Ireland.


One of Galthie’s shrewdest moves was the somewhat leftfield co-opting of Shaun Edwards onto the French ticket as defence coach. Almost at a stroke, the French defence was transformed, beginning with a home win over England in last year’s Six Nations.

Discussing why this is the best French team in a decade this week before he was ruled out of the game, Johnny Sexton ventured: “I suspect it links to Shaun Edwards. The quality of coaches they have there, I think, would play a huge part. I think when teams turn a corner like they do, the coaches play the biggest part in it. Obviously they need good players but good players are nothing without good coaches.”

Then again, as Warren Gatland freely admits, the secret to being a good coach is good players. And that’s what makes this match so intriguing, two title contenders brimful with world-class players, and others on the verge of world-class status, being guided by two smart and wily coaching tickets.

At their heart are Edwards and Farrell, two Wigan-born products of Rugby League whose relationship as team-mates, friends and, in this latest guise, rivals, goes back 33 years or so.


Edwards, a scrumhalf, made his Wigan debut at 17 in 1983 before Farrell, a loose forward, emulated him by doing so at 16 years of age in 1991, and Farrell became something of a father figure to the younger man.

“He looked after me massively when I came through as a kid,” Farrell has since admitted. “I remember him taking me to his agent on the first day I played for Wigan and he said, ‘I’m going to look after you, you know’. He was great for me in those first couple of years. I learned a lot.”

They were Wigan team-mates for seven years, including the last three of the club’s eight Challenge Cups in succession, and again when Farrell won the first of his four caps with Britain, beginning with his try-scoring Test debut at the age of 18 against New Zealand in November 1993.

Then, as both men migrated to rugby union, so began the rivalry.

Their paths crossed for four seasons from 2005 when Farrell was playing for Saracens, and for another three seasons when he took his first foray into coaching as an assistant with Saracens, during which time Edwards was working with Wasps.

Edwards also combined this for three years from 2008 with working as defence coach for Wales and so when Farrell was brought onto the English ticket by Stuart Lancaster for the 2012 Six Nations, so began a decade-plus rivalry at international level.

Edwards had the edge in the five matches when the two were opposing defence coaches for Wales and England, with three wins. Wales launched a Grand Slam campaign at Twickenham in 2012, beating England in a title decider in Cardiff a year later, and they won a tumultuous World Cup pool tie at Twickenham in 2015 by 28-25 to knock out the hosts.

After Joe Schmidt brought Farrell aboard as defence coach, Ireland won three of five meetings against Wales, although the Welsh won two of three Six Nations meetings, including their Grand Slam coronation in 2019.

In the two meetings since Farrell became Ireland head coach and Edwards joined Galthié’s ticket France won the re-arranged Six Nations clash in October 2020 and last year’s encounter, again behind closed doors, at the Aviva Stadium.


Gatland is one of the few men to have worked extensively with both, beginning in 2002 when he took over at Wasps and was immediately struck by Edwards’ enthusiasm and keenness.

“He was still relatively new in the game and learning defensively. We’d been using a blitz defence at Connacht and had some success, and I suggested introducing that at Wasps. He looked at me and went: ‘Oh my God, I’ve been thinking about that so much but just haven’t had the confidence to implement it.’ He took that on board and was fantastic with it.”

The pair had huge success with Wasps and again when Gatland brought him aboard with Wales.

“The great thing about Shaun is that he’d been a professional sportsman since the age of 16. When I went to Wasps in 2002 the game had only been a professional sport for seven years but he’d been involved in professional sport for almost 20 years. His experience was quite critical at that time, the way he approached things and prepared and trained.

“He had a good influence on the players and what I admired and respected about him was that he knew what his strengths were but he also knew what his weaknesses were as a player and he was never afraid to express those mistakes he’d made in the past as a player, in the hope they wouldn’t repeat them.”

Edwards’ influence wasn’t confined to defence. “He brought an edge as well,” said Gatland. “We often played good cop bad cop sometimes.”

Farrell also emulated Edwards in becoming a defence coach, first with Saracens and then with England.

New ideas

Although Ian McGeechan brought both Edwards and Gatland as assistants on the Lions tour to South Africa in 2009, when Gatland became head coach of the Lions in 2013 he enlisted Farrell.

“I’d heard some positive stuff about Andy. It was really tough not taking Shaun but it was a chance to work with someone else and see a different approach with slightly different ideas.

“Andy and Shaun are very different individuals. Shaun is misunderstood a lot of times. He is an incredibly proud man, and incredibly generous and very religious. He goes to mass most Sundays and his faith is really important to him. You really respect that about him and people don’t realise that he’s a person who gives a lot, and also with his money, in helping people out.

“I like Andy because he’s got strong views and values, and he’s opinionated, which is great, and challenges you. Andy’s got an edge about him too. He’d captained Wigan and Britain at a very young age. I think he’s got a really good understanding and feel of team environments and often as a coach can make a big difference.

Under Joe they had some really good starter plays and trick plays, which you always had to be aware of, but also if you went in with the right defensive game plan you felt that you could nullify them

“There’s no doubt that he can go in with a group of players, get the mood, push the right buttons and build good relationships within the group.”

Hence, Gatland always believed Farrell was destined to become a head coach.

“He’s been broadening his understanding of the other aspects of the game. He’s clearly got a very good knowledge on defence and he’s worked with Mike Catt before on the attacking side of things. He would have learned a lot from working with Joe too and I think he’s taken the best out of people he’s worked with and then married that with his own personality and skills.

“Like everyone, he had a certain amount of criticism in Ireland to start with but you’ve got to stamp your own personality and ideas, and sometimes things take a little bit of time to implement. I think what he’s done with that Ireland team at the moment, looking in from the outside, is that he’s got some real experience, some youngsters who are doing really well, other players challenging for positions and the strength of this Irish team at the moment isn’t, for me, the starting team.

“I look at the bench, and Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray and Cian Healy, and having that sort of experience is pretty impressive.”

Speaking before Johnny Sexton was ruled out, Gatland added: “I suppose one thing that could undermine Ireland in future years is making sure that they’ve got cover for Johnny, and that someone else gets enough game time. He’s crucial to them at the moment and they’re going to have to look after him.

“But if he does get injured they’ve got to have someone who has enough game time, and also enough respect and confidence to do that. Carbery and Byrne have the potential and credentials, but they’ve got to get more game time and I presume that’s his biggest challenge in the next 12 months.

Gatland still sees Ireland “doing a lot of things that are similar” under Farrell.

Under pressure

“But they don’t seem to be as prescriptive as they potentially were. Under Joe they had some really good starter plays and trick plays, which you always had to be aware of, but also if you went in with the right defensive game plan you felt that you could nullify them, stifle their go-forward and put Johnny under pressure.”

Gatland has also seen the dramatic imprint on France’s defence, in their desire and attitude, and fitness levels, something he believes Edwards would have implored Galthie to address “because 80 per cent of defence is about being fit”.

As the two old teammates meet again, you’d wonder how the rivalry has affected their relationship.

“I wouldn’t say they were close friends, but definitely there’s respect there for what they’ve both achieved, firstly at Wigan and also Britain, and then in coaching. Sometimes what transpires from having so much respect for what someone does is then wanting to beat them, and that’s what creates a rivalry. And this is a massive game for both teams in the Six Nations. I think whoever wins this game will go on to win the Six Nations.”

Gatland also finds it hard to call.

“Whoa, it’s a tough one. Looking at both teams I think it could be who handles the expectation the most and the pressure that comes from that. Sometimes that’s been Ireland’s downfall, there’s been so much external expectation and pressure to win and perform, and people haven’t always handled it.

“I know they were massive favourites against Wales and they did a job and could have won by more, but this is a bigger challenge at Stade de France with a full house and France building up to a home World Cup. That’s massive pressure on them too but the French often thrive in that. You look back on when they won the World Cup in football at home.

“But Ireland have definitely got some experience, some really exciting players and the squad to go over there and win. I don’t think I can call a winner in this. As a neutral I’m really looking forward to watching the game.”

Andy Farrell

Born: May 30th, 1975. Place of birth: Wigan.

Rugby league playing career

Position: Loose forward and goalkicker. Wigan (1991 to 2004). Played 370 games, scored 3135 points. With Wigan he won two Challenge Cups, a World Club Challenge, a Premiership final and Grand Final, and is one of only two players to score more than 3000 points for the club.

Britain's youngest ever captain at 21, he played 34 times for them and scored 134 points.

Rugby Union playing career

Position: Backrower.

Saracens (2005-09)

England (2007) 8 caps.

Coaching career

Saracens (Assistant coach, 2009 to 2012).

England (Defence coach, 2011-15).

Ireland (Defence coach 2016-19) Won Grand Slam. (Head coach, 2019-)

Shaun Edwards

Born: October 17th 1966. Place of birth: Wigan.

Rugby league playing career

Position: Scrumhalf, standoff and fullback. Wigan (1983-1997). Played 466 games, scored points 1146. He won eight championships and nine Challenge Cups with Wigan. Also played for Balmain Tigers, London Broncos and Bradford Bulls.

Britain (1985-94). Played 36 tests, scored 15 tries. He also played in three tests for England one for Ireland, in 1998. He is the most decorated player in Rugby League history, with 37 medals.

Rugby Union coaching career

Defence coach

Wasps (2001-11). Won four Premiership titles, two Heineken Champions Cups, a European Challenge Cup.

Wales (2008-2019). Four Six Nations titles, including three Grand Slams, two World Cup semi-finals.

France (2019-)