‘We want to make an impression’

Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards tells SA Rugby magazine about stopping the Springbok pack, South Africa’s fantastic depth and why the new law interpretations are good for Wales.

There’s been some concern in South Africa about the decision to add June’s fixture to an already congested international calendar. As a member of the Wales management, what do you think?
It’s a great opportunity to face the best team in the world just a year out from the World Cup. They’ve really set the standard so playing them will give us a chance to see what we are doing wrong and what we are doing right.

There’s also been talk that the Springboks will field a second-string side, or a team comprising foreign-based South Africans. Do you view this as an insult?
It’s not an insult when you consider the quality of depth in South African rugby. Just because somebody isn’t a regular starter doesn’t mean he’s not of Test quality. I work with Wasps so I also get a chance to see a number of South Africans who are currently based at European clubs. Michael Claassens [the former Bok scrumhalf now captaining Bath] is a guy who has Test star written all over him. Butch James, Luke Watson [both Bath] and CJ van der Linde [Leinster] are all great players of international quality, but are not usually considered because they’re based in Europe. If any of these players pull on the Bok jersey, they won’t let their country down.

Wales had a poor Six Nations, finishing fourth, but do you think they can beat South Africa given the Boks won’t have much time to prepare for the Test? Or will the long European season count against the Welsh?
I don’t think it will count against us because most of our players would have enjoyed a break before the match. History will show that the year after the British & Irish Lions series, the home unions don’t usually do well in the Six Nations. The Lions tour can take it out of you mentally and physically, and you saw how a number of players broke down at various stages in South Africa last year. Some even required surgery. It had a knock-on effect into the subsequent autumn series [November tours] and Six Nations. But the players have enjoyed a break ahead of the coming Tests in June. We should be fresh.

Wales were the second-worst defensive side in the Six Nations, conceding 117 points. What were the problem areas, and how do you plan to rectify these before you face the Boks?
Mate, the problem was that we conceded too many tries. A lot of those were from turnovers or intercepts, but if we’re honest we’ll say our defensive accuracy wasn’t 100%. We saved our best performance for the match against Italy [they won 33-10 to avoid the wooden spoon]. The big positive to come out of that match was our improved defence, and a few youngsters were also introduced.

The Bulls and Stormers did well in the Super 14, and utilised the rolling maul to good effect. The Boks mauled the Lions 40m to score in the first Test last year. Do you have plans to counter that?
When we introduced Simon Shaw, who is one of the best counter-mauling exponents in the game, to the starting side for the second and third Tests, the Boks had less success. Obviously we don’t have a Simon Shaw at Wales, but we will have to follow that example.

What are your thoughts on the new law interpretations?
The powers-that-be need to be applauded for the change in the rules. They’ve given the game back to the players. I’m a defence coach, but I love what I’m seeing from teams on attack. The South Africans have been enjoying a faster brand of rugby under the new law interpretations.

Do you think that will be to their advantage, or will it count against them when they come to play in Wales?
Wales have always preferred to run rather than kick, so these interpretations should suit us just fine. It should be a great spectacle, but will not want for physicality.

The Boks went on to win the Tri-Nations after beating the Lions and scored some great tries. Has their attack improved since you last coached against them?
The Lions series was of such a high standard, and winning that series must have given them a lot of confidence. They were clearly the most dominant team in the Tri-Nations. They scored five tries against the Lions over the three Tests, and most of those were from first phase. There was the example of the maul, but their backline can be very creative as seen by the tries by Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen. They took that into the Tri-Nations and I wasn’t surprised to see them cutting the defensive line from first phase on a couple of occasions [Jaque Fourie scored in this manner against Australia in Perth].

A lot of Super 14 coaches say, ‘You know what the Bulls are going to do, but that doesn’t mean you can stop them’. Are the Boks similar in this respect?
It’s more like, you know Mike Tyson’s going to smack you with his right, but you can also expect him to smack you with his left. The Boks are playing a complete game. They have that commanding power in the forwards, an outstanding defensive system and a great kicking game. They also have the benefit of having two halfbacks in Fourie du Preez and Morné Steyn playing for the Bulls every week. Du Preez is a master tactician.

There’s been talk about bad blood following that Lions series. What’s your take on that, and do you think there’ll be Lions-related niggle when Wales host the Springboks?
It’s a Test match, so of course there will be niggle. Hopefully all the headlines will be talking about intensity and physicality in the build-up to this game, and not all the off-the-ball stuff. I don’t think that will be a factor.

With just a year to go until the World Cup, how much work do Wales have to do in order to be more competitive than they were in 2007?
I can’t comment on the 2007 campaign, but I can say that we can improve across all areas.

The Boks beat England several times in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, and then beat them twice at the tournament. Has the Wales management spoken about this given you’re in the same pool as the Boks in 2011? Can you score psychological points by beating the Boks ahead of that tournament?
It’s more about playing the best teams in the world as much as we can to ensure we’re matching that quality and standard. We want to make an impression.

By Jon Cardinelli

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine