Leinster’s transformation still a thing of wonder to Guy Easterby
Former scrumhalf now sees famous win in Toulouse as one big step on long road
Guy Easterby: “We want our players to play for Ireland. That is the absolute key to what we do and Leo [Cullen] has been an incredible driver of that.” Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
If the history of Leinster, volume three, represents the current reawakening, volume two has to be the moment they embraced actual professionalism.
Little alterations, like moving changing rooms from car park to private gym, or beating the European champions at their own game on their own grass.
The Munster semi-final took away from all that.
The only clubs in possession of this many titles renew acquaintances Sunday in the south of France.
Toulouse’s clichéd ‘aristocrats of French rugby’ title doesn’t hold much weight anymore as they only float above the Champions Cup waterline thanks to the Freddie Burns fumble (or Maxime Medard’s ingenuity).
In stark contrast we witness the upward trajectory of Leinster and, by association, Easterby’s career.
“When we look back on it there is regret,” he remembered this week. “The Munster semi-final took away from all that. Did we celebrate too much? Our flight was delayed so we went to Toulouse’s actual home ground to watch Munster [beat Perpignan].
“We definitely celebrated that win and it was a big win for Leinster, it was the first time we had a really big crowd away from home, it did feel like the beginning of something.
“It was Michael Cheika’s first season and he had made a difference, but we were still trying to score more points than the opposition, rather than making ourselves defensively strong. It was more the Newcastle United way when they were top of the Premier League and couldn’t win it. There is definitely regret there. We had got to semi-finals before.”
Change came slowly over the next three seasons with each progressive step seeming like enormous progress until reality exposed other limitations.
“We were 10 years into professionalism. Mick Dawson and the other decision makers at that time took a brave risk in hiring an unknown head coach. The move to Riverview was a start but the changing rooms were still like in school, with hooks on the walls, but it was so far removed from the Old Belvedere’s car park.”
Despite Leinster’s greatest generation of players flooding through, and discovering a coach to mould them, demand was overwhelming supply. The stadium quickly became unfit for purpose.
“The demand for tickets became huge. We knew we needed to move to the RDS. The administrative side of the organisation was still in Donnybrook across from the ground. Now, that was less than a mile away from the playing group but it may as well have been 100 miles apart. We didn’t see the team.
“People like Ciara Kennedy deserve a lot of credit for her role in commercial and marketing. She was relatively young and inexperienced but she saw the opportunity.”
Within two years of that Toulouse game Easterby had returned to Yorkshire to take over the family farm while his father battled illness.
“He had cancer, he had a really big operation, so I went back home. He couldn’t recover, which was pretty horrific. My girlfriend at the time was Irish so I was travelling back to Dublin most weekends. I was trying to help my dad but I found it really difficult to get back into farming after playing professional rugby for 10 years. Farming had changed beyond belief.
“With Dad’s passing I wasn’t in a great place,” he continued. “I was a bit lost with regards what I wanted to do and then Cheiks rang me to get back involved in a scouting type role. It was never really a scouting role. We were only allowed four, maybe five foreign players on two-year contracts so I was hardly scouring the world. That’s not what Leinster has ever been about.
“Cheiks was always innovative and he liked to almost grade players on a personality level to see what they could deliver culturally. The team management role came up and I was still living in England. Chris Whitaker did it for a year so that gave me time to tidy up things at home, and my sister and her husband came to live on the farm.
“It developed into head of rugby operations as each role in the club was growing so much, with Cheika having to focus on playing side of it – so dealing with the contracts became my role amongst others.”
Stockbroker David Shubotham reportedly gave €2.2 million to build their base in UCD but an obvious issue nowadays is that the outdated RDS needs renovating to match the image Leinster project on a global scale.
“It is certainly the next important step for Leinster Rugby.”
What Easterby does state, categorically, is that one man leads the organisation. Not himself nor Dawson as chief executive – “and Mick will say it himself” – not Stuart Lancaster nor Joe Schmidt and certainly not IRFU chief David Nucifora.
“We want our players to play for Ireland. That is the absolute key to what we do and Leo has been an incredible driver of that, more so than any coach before him. His desire to see the players reach the pinnacle of their career, and that might be playing Pro 14, negates much of the ‘tensions’ [with the IRFU].
“Yes, we want to keep everyone at Leinster but that’s not how Leo thinks. The head coach is the key really. Leo is the figurehead of the organisation. He is in the media every week.”
This is a valid narrative in October 2018 but rewind to December 2015 and a very different, pre-Stuart Lancaster, picture was evident as Leinster lost their opening four European matches to Wasps, Bath and Toulon (twice).
“It was clear we needed to change something. Leo is such a selfless person that he knew that himself.”
The current Cullen-Lancaster-Easterby dynamic is curious if clearly workable.
"We are also incredibly fortunate with the schools system.
“We could never be certain about how the relationship was going to work but Stuart wanted to get back to hands-on coaching after being 90 percent management with England. You see someone like Dean Richards who doesn’t really coach. Leo still coaches. I take some of those ‘director of coaching’ roles off him but like most head coaches he wants to be able to take control of everything – and work 26 hours of every day! – because it is their head on the block with two- or three-year contracts. Why wouldn’t the head person want to be on top of everything?”
Everything was questioned in late 2015, from Johnny Sexton’s durability to the coaching ticket, but nobody foresaw how quickly James Ryan and Jordan Larmour would rise from schoolboys to Grand Slammers.
“And Garry’s [Ringrose] development,” Easterby added. “James and Jordan – these players don’t come along very often. We knew about them but they surprised everyone in here at how quickly they developed.”
There are more to follow. The loss of Conor Nash to Aussie Rules increasingly looks permanent but the next Tadhg Furlong or Seanie O’Brien, via the Youths club system, are already visible.
“There are two names that spring to mind. I’m not going to put their name out there but we are really hopeful that they will come through.
"We are also incredibly fortunate with the schools system.”
Nobody of a sane disposition would actively seek one of Easterby’s primary roles, pressing the button that enhances or diminishes careers, by negotiating player contracts.
“I’ve never seen a salary in the paper that’s accurate. We do care about the people here so that’s what makes that job so difficult. - In ’06 we celebrated that Toulouse win for two days. Well, we probably didn’t, but it certainly felt like that. The player group are hungrier now. The organisation is more driven.
“Everyone is immediately thinking about the next game, ‘how do I recover, how do I get selected from 55 players’? There is so much more going on in the way they think about the game.”