Eoin McKeon knew his Connacht defence coach was a unique character when he saw him walk into his local gym in a wetsuit in the darkness of a western winter.
He was big into Iron Man Triathlons,” McKeon says of Mike Forshaw, who 10 years later Warren Gatland has enlisted to fill the void Shaun Edwards left as the keeper of the Welsh defence.
“He would walk into the gym in all the gear after doing a swim up and down the prom [in Salthill] and finish off his session in the pool or jump onto the bike. He had an aura of energy about him and it becomes contagious.
“If a coach is preaching about energy and hard work, if someone is living those words in what they do, it resonates with players. It’s not just someone sitting at a laptop telling us to work harder. You knew after training he was going out to run 20km on the road.”
Of all the intriguing aspects to Warren Gatland’s second coming as Wales head coach, how the defence performs under Mike Forshaw will go a long way to determining whether the sequel to Warrenball is closer to Top Gun Maverick or The Hangover Part Two.
The presence of Forshaw alongside Gatland is just one of the reasons why when the Kiwi takes his place in the Welsh coaches’ box on Saturday, the world he steps back into will be a very different place to the Six Nations he last inhabited.
The challenges remain the same: turn over Ireland yet again at home, build momentum and come St Patrick’s weekend, smash open the trophy case, grab the loot and high tail it back to Cardiff.
But not only is Gatland’s squad different – and in some cases, older – than his Grand Slam-winning sign-off four years ago, crucially, key coaches he relied on for counsel, expertise and a winning mentality have moved on too.
Last month Gatland expressed his disappointment that he was not allowed rehire Rob Howley as attack coach, with the nature of his departure during the 2019 World Cup due to betting offences still providing an obstacle.
While Welsh supporters won’t worry too much about winding up with Alex King rather than Howley, who was often criticised for not evolving the attack during his tenure, the absence of Shaun Edwards as the all-knowing, all-aggressive defensive guru will make fans nervous.
Edwards has helped transform France into Grand Slam champions and World Cup favourites since swapping countries, and every trophy Gatland won with Wasps and Wales was achieved with the Wigan Rugby League legend at his side.
When the silverware you are talking about are three Grand Slams, three English Premierships and a Heineken Cup, it’s fair to say that finding a replacement who comes close to matching Edwards’ influence is as important a decision as Gatland will make this time around.
Enter, Mike Forshaw – a defence coach from central casting and another Rugby League stalwart with a wonderfully gruff north of England accent.
The 52-year-old has spent the last 10 seasons as the Sale Sharks defence coach, having served the previous three campaigns in the same role under Eric Elwood in Connacht, where he came into contact with Eoin McKeon.
Before that, he was a Super League winner with the Bradford Bulls, and while he didn’t enjoy the stratospheric career of Six Nations League luminaries such as Edwards, Andy Farrell or new England defence coach Kevin Sinfield, he did score a head-to-head victory over the Ireland head coach in two league finals.
Warren Gatland even revealed that Andy Farrell gave Forshaw’s appointment the seal of approval at the recent Six Nations launch, and the Ireland boss met the then Sale assistant for a beer over Christmas where he revealed that he might be competing against Farrell in the upcoming Six Nations.
So Forshaw looks and sounds the part, but how does he stack up to Edwards?
Wales’ success between 2008 and 2019 was built on defence: during Gatland’s 12 years in Wales, the team on average finished 2nd in the Six Nations defence table and conceded 1.33 tries per game.
In the three Six Nations tournaments under Wayne Pivac, the team allowed an even two tries per game.
That works out as three tries more conceded per campaign than in the Edwards era. If you take 2022, had Wales maintained the Edwards average and conceded one fewer try against England, France and Italy, they would have won four games instead of one and Wayne Pivac would still be the head coach.
The numbers when it comes to clashes against Ireland are even more stark. Since Gatland’s first game against the men in green in 2008, when Wales hold Ireland to one try or less, they have won eight and drawn one of ten encounters.
So for Gatland to get an immediate bump and upset the world number one team, Forshaw must devise a plan to slow down Ireland’s multi-faceted attack or Wales might not be able to keep pace on the scoreboard.
In other words – if Ireland score two tries, history says they will likely leave Cardiff with a win.
McKeon doesn’t expect Wales to complicate things too much in trying to stop Ireland.
“Simplicity was the biggest thing,” McKeon says of Forshaw’s style. “In a way it was a bit old school, or just what makes a good defence. Physicality. Winning the gainline. It wasn’t just enough to get a guy down. It wasn’t good enough to make contact and lose one metre. It was about stopping someone wherever the contact was made.”
Forshaw’s statistics with Sale make for encouraging reading from a Welsh perspective – and the defensive style also passes the eye test. Nobody would accuse Sale of being flamboyant entertainers, rather an abrasive and aggressive XV whose physical dominance over the majority of Premiership teams has vaulted them to second in the table this term.
Ulster felt their bruising wrath in the 39-0 humiliation that accelerated a dip in form into a landslide.
Sale have had the fifth best Premiership defence on average across Forshaw’s ten years, and in the last four seasons they are in the top two.
Alex Sanderson, formerly of Saracens and now the Sale head coach for the last three seasons, was effusive in his praise for what Forshaw can do when his departure was announced.
“When I was at Saracens we had a real rivalry because we were defence coaches of different organisations. What was very apparent over two or three years was that he was better than me.
“As a rival coach I’d try and unpick some of the secrets and the systems that made Sale so good. But then when I was lucky enough to step into this role at this club, I realised within a matter of hours that it wasn’t down to systems or secrets, it was down to the man. It was down to Forsh.”
It might seem a bit much to place so much importance on the role of an assistant coach when Warren Gatland will be calling the shots and there will be 23 Welsh players with the capability to produce an upset at the Principality Stadium this weekend.
But that’s the legacy that Shaun Edwards’ defence has left. And that’s the void that Mike Forshaw has to fill.