Simon Easterby endorses Ireland’s backrow production line
Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien absent for Paris but replacements mean no reduction in quality
Jack Conan is one of the backrow forwards who have stepped up to take the place of those injured this season. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
To a man the Irish players have already risen to the challenge. Nobody is out of key this week. There are no bum notes.
The new Ireland is a squad of players with a factory line disposition, a squadron of I Robot type replacements ready to step in and make it a better place. Even the forensic eye of Joe Schmidt will barely be able to tell a shift of standard.
It is a line the provinces have been keen on selling too, especially Leinster. But the message cannot be simultaneously true and fair to the injured players left out and the ones coming in.
Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip won’t take to the field in Stade de France. Whatever the combination of Peter O’Mahony, C J Stander, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan, Ireland’s backrow will be shorn of two of its most decorated players.
The chorus line going to France to which most people are chiming along, is that missing pair won’t make much of a difference. But why not?
“You’ve got guys who have stood up in their provinces without Seán, without Jamie,” explains assistant coach Simon Easterby.
“Up steps Jack Conan, and Dan and Josh and Jordi. It’s the mark of the Irish player that when someone drops out we don’t see a massive reduction in the quality of the next guy coming in because they have been training with that team and see it as an opportunity.
“It is great to have these players available to us. It’s disappointing to not have a few available but there isn’t much in it now. If we had 10 backrows and the other guys were all fit, there would little between them. But it’s great because the competition is all we want.”
The tune from Ireland would be no different if it were Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray injured. But in going to play France Ireland have to fortify themselves with minimal negativity because Paris has been such a miserable place. There can be no brooding or acknowledgement that missing two key players will hurt the effort.
But Easterby, as a player, also knew how to win in Paris. He was there when Brian O’Driscoll scored his famous hat-trick in the 2000 game, playing at blindside in the backrow along with Kieron Dawson and the late Anthony Foley.
It maybe that Ireland, like then, need a player of flair and poise to make the difference – without forgetting the three conversions and two penalties from Ronan O’Gara and replacement David Humphreys that narrowly took Ireland over the line in the 25-27 win.
“I’d love it if someone else scored a hat-trick on the weekend in a green jersey,” says Easterby. “But I think we were at the start of building a team back in the early 2000s and Brian was clearly a massive part of that – a world class rugby player who went on and on.
“We’ve got plenty of quality in our squad. I think what we also have is a real collective and a will. You’d like to think that we do have individuals who can do that.
“But also we have the sort of game-plan that can open up sides and also on the other side of the ball can stop sides scoring against us so maybe we don’t have to score hat-tricks to win games.”
Despite contact training at their base in Spain last week, the squad from which Schmidt will pick his side remains injury free.
“Yes, there was contact,” adds Easterby. And over four days nobody injured?
“No we were pretty good actually. We were pretty lucky.”
Easterby understands what is ahead for the pack. It is the first point of attack and the enduring truism that it is, if Ireland do not hold up there they will be again off their moorings and adrift in a sodden Paris.
“They want to dominate teams up front, dominate physically. Maybe in the past we weren’t as well equipped to do that as now,” he explains.
“I think if you don’t get parity or get on top of a French side, especially in the forward pack, then it becomes a difficult day. We have gone there, when I was playing, and we’ve been beaten up a little bit as much. As we tried very hard we lost out to bigger men.”
No more. And all without O’Brien and Heaslip. That won’t bother Ireland, so they are saying.