In 2005 I spoke to the former Wigan, London and Great Britain captain, Shaun Edwards OBE, for Thirteen about his international career. He was part of three winning series against New Zealand and played in three winning Tests against Australia (even though he was infamously sent off in one!). Edwards, sadly, is still a rugby union coach and remains one of the biggest losses to the League code in the modern era.
At 18, you became the youngest ever Great Britain player in a young side in France 1985. What are your memories of that game and how much pressure did you feel stepping up at such a young age?
We won convincingly and we had a strong team out as the score would suggest. I was quite tense before the game but playing full back in such a big win, I didn’t have many tackles to make. I was an attacking full back so it was a dream game for me, being able to get into the back line a lot.
Later that year you were pitted against more difficult opposition in the NZ tourists. Presumably you noticed a step up in class?
Absolutely. I think it was the dawn of good times for Great Britain. We got a drawn series against probably the best team in the world at the time as they’d just beaten the Australians 18-0. Tony Myler pulled out on the morning of the third test so I started in that, playing left centre against Dean Bell. It was probably the dirtiest game of rugby I’ve ever played in. It was very tight and it was down to Lee Crooks to kick a last-minute goal to level the game and the series. Lee came off the bench and won man of the match, so that shows the impact he made. The year before New Zealand had beaten Great Britain 3-0 so the improvement was there to be seen and I felt that I’d played in a real test match which I was proud of.
What were the main things you learned by being involved in the GB set-up at that stage of your career?
Well in that game I wanted to keep my head down as there were fists flying everywhere! It’s very intimidating to be young playing at a level like that. You’ve got to give it everything and when you’re hurting, hang in there.
After establishing yourself in the team over the next couple of years, you were an obvious selection for the 1988 tour of the Southern Hemisphere but your knee injury against Papua New Guinea meant you played just seven minutes on that tour. How disappointing was that?
Yes it was one, if not the biggest disappointments of my career. Me and Andy Gregory were all set to go to Australia and take on Lewis and Sterling but after five minutes it was all over for me. It was probably the worst time of my career. I ended up in the television studio back home.
Were there mixed feelings when you watched the famous 26-12 third Test win?
Oh no. I was absolutely delighted the boys had won. There was no one more excited than me and I wished I was there. Likewise I was wishing I’d been in the other games. We could have won the first Test when we were winning at half time.
In 1989 we defeated the Kiwi tourists in a series for the first time in 24 years and you were named man of the series. What are your memories of this series?
I’d just come back from my spell with Balmain where I’d been suspended and injured my hamstring. I felt I’d come back a better player but had to prove it out on the pitch. Those first few months after I came back was some of my best form of my life. I came on as a substitute in Manchester in the first test which we lost and then we went on to win the series. After the disappointment of not showing my best form at Balmain, I was delighted to be announced as the man of the series. I felt I’d arrived as an international rugby player.
What about the Steve Hampson sending-off game?
It was quite amazing and gets more amazing when you look back and consider we won after playing the whole game with 12 men. It was one of the most fired-up Great Britain dressing rooms with the captain Mike Gregory doing a great job. We wanted to redeem ourselves after the first test and we did. Andy Goodway was superb, scoring two tries but we all dug in for each other and it was one of the best games I ever played in.
With Hanley, Gregory and Schofield out, do you think you benefited from the added responsibility?
Yes, possibly. I was at my best in rugby league when there was pressure on me and with Andy Gregory out, I was the main playmaker. I always played well with David Hulme because I think our styles complemented each other.
Your fractured eye socket at Wembley in 1990 cost you a place on the subsequent tour, and you were down to skipper the tour in Hanley’s absence. You must have started to think that you’d never get a tour under your belt!
Yes, I smashed my cheekbone in the Challenge Cup Final and it was all over for me. I won 37 caps but it could have been a lot more had it not been for the injuries.
You had further disappointment later that year when you only featured in the first test against the 1990 Kangaroo tourists.
I was on the bench at Wembley but missed out altogether for the next two. My form was poor at the start of the season and I paid the penalty and missed a monumental series. I feel that I should have been on the bench though and if I’d been on I feel I’d have stopped Ricky Stuart when he made that break at Old Trafford. Malcolm Reilly made a big mistake by not putting a cover defender on late on.
In 1992 you finally made a full tour and were part of the famous 33-10 second test win in Melbourne.
It was quite unbelievable. We lost the first test then went to Parramatta and lost to them too. We were being portrayed as a laughing stock over there. Even though we’d run them close in the first, they got away from us at the end. Before the second, we trained fantastically well and there was a real determination to redeem ourselves. It was a wet weather night which suited us fine. They were trying to throw the ball around and we really pressured them. It was my first start against Australia too. The rest is history. 33-10 in Australia is fantastic.
Yet again you came into the second Test starting line-up after Andy Gregory went home and after coming off the bench in the first test. Again, did you think you had a point to prove?
It was my first start against them which is what you dream about all your life so I wanted to give it everything I had for that reason. I’d been told about six days beforehand that I needed surgery on my shoulder and that I shouldn’t have been playing but fortunately for me I met a physiotherapist who told me how to strap it in a certain way. The shoulder had kept dislocating and I thought that if I was to get injured then it may as well be in a test match. I went out there and didn’t really care what happened to my body. I just wanted to put my body on the line but, in the end, it was rewarding for me because I played with my shoulder strapped like that for another eight years!
How much did it help having an all-Wigan pack that night?
It didn’t make that much difference although having Martin Dermott at hooker helped as the hooker and scrum-half relationship is important.
Presumably the build-up to the third Test was a bit different? The players’ confidence and self belief must have been through the roof going into the game, but the Aussies proved too good again.
We trained very well again and only lost 16-10. It was a very hot night and the locals were surprised saying that it was normally cool at that time of the year so it suited them as they were used to the heat. It was wet the next night though! I felt that if it had rained like that when we’d played then we’d have won. But on the night we gave away too many penalties and they got a mountain of field position. There forwards were bigger and we got a battering. I made 37 tackles that night, which is a lot for a halfback, but that had a knock on effect when I had the ball.
How did it affect the side’s confidence going into the World Cup final later that year?
I think the problem was the team selection. Malcolm picked Deryck Fox and myself with Schoey in the centres which I felt was a mistake. He should have just picked two out of the three of us. But having said we were winning the game with eight minutes left. Unfortunately for us, Gary Connolly, a great defensive centre, had to go off injured, which was rare for him. Steve Renouf got on the outside of his replacement John Devereux and we lost the World Cup. Then Mal Meninga kicked the touchline goal to put them 10-6 ahead which was unfortunate as we got a late penalty which, if we were two down, we could have kicked. He seemed to kick them from everywhere against us but not in Australia!
What about 1993 against the Kiwis? That was a superb series for us.
That was the best Great Britain team I played in. We beat a strong New Zealand team and to win a series 3-0 against any Southern Hemisphere team is no mean feat. Malcolm had us trained to perfection and Schoey did a good job as captain. The understanding between the team was fantastic and I remember John Devereux’s incredible try at Wigan which was one of the best test tries. He beat about six defenders and crashed over in true John Devereux style. It was also particularly rewarding for me because I’d played against Gary Freeman the year before when we drew the series 1-1. I’ve always looked at my performances critically and in that drawn series Freeman got the better of me. He was rated as the best scrum half in the world at that time. There was a burning desire on my part to have another crack at Gary, I’d got myself in the best shape of my life and I got my reward in that series by getting the better of him. Gary had been a real inspiration to me because I like the way he competed in games and the crowds loved to hate him. I had a lot of respect for the way he played the game and thought he was a top class half back.
Did you pick up much from him when you played together at Balmain in 1989?
I picked up his competitiveness and also learned from his fitness levels. I really punished my body in the off-season before the Kiwis tour. I’ve never trained so hard in my life because I wanted to be as fit as him. He was super fit. I had to be in pristine condition to compete against such a great player which is why I trained so hard in that off-season.
Your most famous Test moment came at Wembley a year later when, as the newly installed captain, you lasted just 25 minutes after your shot on Bradley Clyde. Talk us through that incident.
Going into the game I was thinking of the recent Wigan v Australia game. We’d played really badly, dropped lots of ball but still could have beaten them. We lost 20-30. So I really, really thought we would beat Australia on that day. We went into the game with a lot of confidence and were on top early on. Jonathan Davies missed a pretty easy penalty shot early on but then I got sent off. They got an overlap and I over-chased trying to cover. Bradley Clyde stepped inside and he was going to score. I aimed for his chest but mistimed it and hit him under his chin.
What did you think about the decision?
Well I don’t think an Australian halfback would have been sent off for that in Australia. If that had been Allan Langer on Ellery Hanley over there and he’d been sent off there’d have been absolute uproar but they’re very patriotic and they stick together.
Was that the lowest moment in your career?
No, it was one of the proudest moments because we beat Australia and I’d been part of the preparations and had played although, of course, I wish I’d stayed on! The lads made me feel better by winning and every time I see Jonathan I remind him that I owe him big time because he saved my bacon that day. I couldn’t watch the game. I was sat outside Wembley smoking a cigarette and I don’t even smoke! I’d got a cigarette off someone and I was a bag of nerves but I was absolutely delighted the lads won.
Did you get much grief over the tackle from the Australians?
I don’t really know. There was stuff in the media and Fulton used to use the media to intimidate referees etc but it was quite ironic because I got elbowed off the ball by Dean Pay in the third Test and he didn’t get sent off.
What changed for the second test from Great Britain’s point of view? Preparation etc?
I wasn’t with the team that much but I sensed on the bus on the way to the ground that there wasn’t the same intensity amongst the guys and we paid the price by getting humiliated in the end.
Ellery showed faith in you and restored you for the Third Test in what proved to be your final appearance for GB, but again the Aussies came out on top.
Yeah they did and it was my last test but I’m proud of the fact that I started five times against Australia, including the World Cup opener for England in 1995, and won three of them and was also voted my side’s best player in the other two: the deciding tests in 1992 in Brisbane and 1994 at Elland Road. At Elland Road we were incredibly unlucky. We got on top early on but suffered injuries and were down to our last 13 players. We were winning 4-0 and just before half time they scored one of the most fortuitous tries you’ll ever see, with the ball bouncing off Paul Newlove’s head. We were right in the game until about eight minutes to go but I have to say that we came off the pitch having given absolutely everything. We had no subs left either.
You played in the opening game of the 1995 World Cup for England but what happened to you after that?
We won the first game and I got a cut on my knee. I asked the doctor what to do and he said to just wash it in the bath and that it’d be okay without stitches or cleaning out. So I did. He was the doctor after all. As the week went on it was getting sore. I couldn’t sleep on the Friday night and woke up with a fever and my knee was about three times the size it usually was. I got taken to hospital and apparently if I’d left it any longer I could have lost my leg. An infection had got into my bloodstream and I was on a drip for a week so that World Cup was over.
After that for me there was the 1996 tour to New Zealand but I needed surgery. International rugby league suffered after the Super League war and it wasn’t the same for a few years. We’d missed great chances to nick the Ashes in 1990, 1992 and 1994 and it humours me, although maybe that’s the wrong word, when people say we’re getting closer and closer to the Aussies because we were very close! Last year’s Tri-Nations was brilliant though until the final game. Let’s hope we can do the job this time.