A driven coach ready for the rocky road
SIMON EASTERBY INTERVIEW:TIMING MAY not quite be everything, but rugby is not the only sport littered with examples of aspiring coaching careers for which opportunity knocked too soon. At face value taking over from Nigel Davies as the Scarlets head coach with just a couple of years behind him as defensive coach looks like a big ask for the likeable ex-Ireland flanker Simon Easterby.
This is a tough time in general for the Welsh regions, who are losing money and their support base and are suffering from a player drain, which made the progress under Davies all the more remarkable.
After all, the Scarlets’ president Phil Bennett described the impending loss of Davies to Gloucester at the end of last season as “a massive blow”, given Davies “rebuilt the club after a dreadful couple of seasons. We were going nowhere. The fans were disenchanted. Nigel came in and had to go through two years of hell. But he has rebuilt it and turned it around.”
The crowds began turning up at their hitherto funereal new home Parc y Scarlets in recognition of a thrilling brand of heads-up, high-tempo running rugby under Davies.
Easterby joined Llanelli as a player in 1999 and captained the side for five consecutive seasons before he was forced to retire with a knee injury in 2010, and after two seasons as defence coach, Bennett and co plumped for him.
Around the same time, Munster also had the option of promoting a former legendary back-rower with over 200 appearances in their jersey as well as over a half-century of caps for Ireland, who’d had a season as defence coach and a season as backs coach, but opted to bide Anthony Foley’s and their time by instead drafting in Rob Penney. Different strokes for different folks. Only time will tell.
“It’s come around a bit quicker than I expected,” a smiling Easterby disarmingly admitted of his elevation to head coach at the recent Rabo Pro12 launch, “and it’s a big challenge, but one I’m looking forward to.”
Even before his career was finished he had earmarked a coaching career for himself. “I think you become less and less effective the older you become as a player, and you realise some of the things that you’ve learned and some of the bad things or mistakes you’ve made, you can put that into practice, and hopefully give some words of advice to players that are coming through, so that they don’t make the mistakes that you did.”
You’d imagine there wouldn’t have been too many of those in a career which also embraced 65 appearances for Ireland – as well as two Test appearances for the Lions in 2005. While it is at least as well that Easterby has had a two-year window between playing with a group of players some of whom he is now coaching, and either selecting or omitting from teams every week, this change in role will also be a significant transition.
A defence coach is a highly specified role, with much time spent on video analysis and comparatively limited time on the training ground, whereas being the head coach is not only a much more all-embracing role, it all demands far more management of people as well as dealing with a far more numerous amount of variables every week.
“I’m lucky in that I’ve been at the club a long time so I’m comfortable in the surroundings, but as a head coach the buck stops with you. You get the opportunity to stamp your own mark on things, which is great, but also accountability and responsibility starts and finishes with me, so I understand that and I wouldn’t have taken it on if I didn’t have an appreciation of that.”
By contrast, his elder brother Guy has opted for a more managerial role – a less precarious if less remunerative route, and therefore possibly the wiser one! In any event, fate decrees that brothers are in opposite camps for Simon’s competitive debut as a head coach against Leinster in Parc y Scarlets this evening. Sod’s Law has also decreed that it will be the first of four clashes this season, as they have been paired together in the Heineken Cup pool stages as well.
“We’re going to meet a few times this season. Leinster have set the benchmark over the last couple of years and Guy has been a big part of that, and it’s great that we can come up against each other outside of playing, in coaching and management.”
Easterby is one of new six newly installed head coaches in the Rabo Pro12 at the outset of the campaign and, in another irony, one of the biggest influences on his career, Phil Davies, was sitting only a few yards away after being reinstated as the Blues coach following his stint as forwards’ coach with Worcester. Previously, after a ten-year stint with Leeds Carnegie which saw them rise four divisions, Davies had led the Scarlets to their last Heineken Cup semi-final in 2007 before being sacked the following year.
“He took me from the farm in Harrogate to my first professional contract and I learned a lot from him,” recalled Easterby who, in 1997, was playing for Harrogate in the English Division Three against a Leeds side containing player-coach Davies. “We had a little spat and not long after he rang me to ask if I was interested in becoming a professional rugby player.”
The game had only turned professional two years earlier so it had been a fateful encounter. “Gareth Jenkins was a serious influence and motivator throughout my career and I’ve picked up things from all the different coaches I played under.”
These also included Warren Gatland, Declan Kidney, Eddie O’Sullivan, Andy Robinson and Mike Ford. With Gatland a boss of sorts, he’s had a few conversations with the Wales coach and prospective Lions coach.
Easterby has vowed to stay true to the brand of rugby which Davies revived, although the demands of the Welsh international set-up limited George North to just eight games for the Scarlets as opposed to 16 for Wales, the kind of return which is prompting the regions to allow their indigenous Test players to move abroad.
“Last year was a bit of an exception with the World Cup and then the autumn international against Australia,” maintains Easterby. “George has shot onto the scene and has played a lot of international rugby but he and all the other players have come back to us this year all focused on performing for us and that’s the key. They still have to pull on a Scarlets jersey and if they’re not playing well for us, ultimately they shouldn’t be selected for the national team.”
It’s no secret that a lack of real ballast in the tight five was the Scarlets’ Achilles’ heel. The props Iestyn and Rhys Thomas retired through injury and illness while the Scarlets lost three of their secondrows, with Lou Reed joining Cardiff Blues, Dom Day journeying to Bath and Damian Welch opting to move to the Exeter Chiefs.
In their place have come Cheetahs lock George Earle, 27-year-old Argentinian forward Tomas Vallejos from Harlequins and South African tight-head Jacobie Adriaanse from Super 15 side the Lions; though the latter won’t link up with the Scarlets until after the end of the Currie Cup. They have also signed winger Kristian Phillips and utility back Gareth Owen from the Ospreys.
“Some of the losses were by design and some weren’t, and we couldn’t change that. We have had to look at the front five and look to strengthen that, and you’re right, you can have whatever you want in the backline, but if you don’t have possession they need, then you may as well have anyone out there, so it is a focus for us.
“Danny Wilson has come in from the Dragons and has been very pro-active in improving our scrum in particular and working on our line-out and making sure that we compliment our backline with a forward back that can not only compete but can deliver at the top level.”
The Scarlets finished one place outside the play-offs in the League over the last two seasons and more than most, you sense, they truly could be anything this season.
“That’s been great,” says Easterby, “but it’s not been good enough to get us in the mix for silverware, so that has to be an ambition for us, to get into the top four.”