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Edwards relishing tough tests ahead

Tom Fordyce | 11:11 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Shaun Edwards is a man of contradictions.

This is a man who played through a Challenge Cup final with a smashed cheekbone, admits that "everything hurts in the morning" and has a knee so destroyed by rugby that it'll have to be replaced with an artificial one.

He's also a chap who likes going to the ballet, speaks to his mum four times a day and enjoyed a trip with her to Mamma Mia last time she was in town.

When you're a rugby league legend working in union, an Englishman coaching Wales and a Wigan boy living in a posh part of west London, you tend to enjoy upsetting people's preconceptions.

"You've got to push yourself," he tells me cheerfully. "If you don't, you just end up sitting around all day not doing much. It's too easy to slip into a comfort zone."

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There's little danger of Edwards doing that in the near future. The next eight months will arguably be the toughest of his career so far.

On Saturday, Wales take on world champions South Africa, looking for only their second win over the Springboks in 102 years of trying. Later in the month come tests against the Wallabies and All Blacks.

Back in London, Wasps have won just one league game all season and are out of the EDF Cup. Then, come June, Edwards has the small matter of the Lions tour to worry about.

"I'm not having nightmares about South Africans," he insists, despite Wales' two defeats on their summer tour.

"A little bit of stress in your life is good. People talk about it as a bad thing, but it can be very positive thing as long as it doesn't become destructive.

"Stress is what gets you up in the morning. It's the challenges that you face head-on throughout the day and your career and your life that define you. Stress is good."

If the school of hard knocks ever needs a headmaster, Edwards is your man. In his first 10 games at Wigan, as a 17-year-old prodigy, he had his nose broken, two teeth knocked out and facial wounds so extensive that he needed 15 stitches.

"I consider myself very fortunate," he says. "I look at my father, who was crippled playing professional rugby and is in considerably more pain than me. I would never complain."

Edwards' immediate concern is how Wales can build on their wonderful, unexpected Grand Slam triumph last spring. As befits a man who won eight consecutive Challenge Cup finals, he's acutely aware of what it takes to turn one-off triumphs into periods of domination.

The Wales team forged by Edwards and head coach Warren Gatland had two dominant characteristics: the capacity to soak up pressure without conceding tries, and the fitness to make game-winning scores in the last quarter.

To build on that, conditioning guru Craig White - another Wasps alumnus - has been recruited "to make the boys bigger and stronger and hopefully more explosive." The selection in Saturday's team of 6ft 5in 17 stone Jamie Roberts at outside centre can be seen in the same light.

Edwards, who in the past has borrowed training drills from American football and wrestling, is a coaching magpie. He had playing spells in Australia and New Zealand with the aim of filling out his rugby education, went on a coaching course in the latter and also spent unpaid time shadowing league great Wayne Bennett at Brisbane Broncos.

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"I still speak to Wayne quite a lot on the phone," he says. "He's been absolutely invaluable to me.

"I speak with Warren a lot too. I've got a very close relationship with him. But people don't always understand how close a relationship you have with the video analysts with the team.

"I probably spend more time talking to Adam Grainger at Wasps and Rhys Long at Wales then anyone else. I probably speak to them four or five times a day, because you need to look at team formations and the real technical aspects of the game."

Edwards is coy about his ambitions after this year, claiming not to plan targets beyond the next few months.

To questions about one day coaching the country of his birth, he says: "A lot of things have happened in my life that have taught me to live by the day as much as possible."

Edwards is refering to the death of his younger brother Billy Joe, killed in a car crash five years ago. "I'm a big believer in living in the here and now. God willing I'll still be alive and well in four years' time, but what will be, will be."

If you should doubt the scale of his ambition, however, you should know that he's already managed to do what some people thought impossible - taught the Welsh to sing.

"I've only got one song - 'Saturday Night At The Movies' - but I do excel at it," he says.

"We sang it together in the dressing-room after we'd won the Grand Slam. One of the proudest parts for me was that the boys didn't need me to lead it any more - they sang it themselves. So not only had their rugby come on a bit, but so had their singing."

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