Simon Easterby’s thirst for knowledge keeps driving Ireland forward
Ireland coach brings kind of attention to detail that makes him a good fit for Schmidt
Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby with Joe Schmidt. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
In that typically unfussy and unstated way of his, both as player and coach, Simon Easterby has again become a hugely important figure within the Ireland set-up as forwards coach and one of those helping to fill the void left by the departure of Les Kiss.
He carries himself with such calm authority that it’s easy to forget he was still playing only six seasons ago, but there’s been plenty crammed into those six years.
John Plumtree was a popular figure within the squad, and a tough act to follow. But word from inside the camp is that Easterby’s attention to detail is even sharper, which must appeal to Joe Schmidt. Players also describe Easterby as highly technical and knowledgeable, and he’s clearly added huge value to the coaching ticket.
Pending the arrival of Andy Farrell, Easterby and Schmidt have sought to work on the foundations laid by Kiss over the last seven years, alongside scrum coach Greg Feek and skills-cum-kicking coach Richie Murphy.
Easterby has been here before. Five years as captain at the Scarlets exposed him more to the planning and coaching side of the game. After assuming the role of player/forwards coach in the last two years of his playing career with the Scarlets, on retirement he became the club’s defensive coach for two years before becoming their head coach.
Enjoyable six years
“You get to a point where your career finishes and you love the game, and you want to stay in the game. And I had the opportunity. Some people don’t get the incredible chance I had. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Had I not got that, I think I still would have pursued coaching somewhere else, but probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunity. My learning was accelerated massively and it’s been an enjoyable six years.
“I’m learning all the time. No two days are the same. No two sessions are the same. No two plays are the same. And I think that’s the thing you begin to learn. To start with, you try to plough your own furrow and work hard, but then you start to see things a little differently. You open up a little bit and you start to expose [yourself] to different elements of the game.
“Sitting with Feeky, we chat about all things – scrum, lineout, contact area. Feeky’s coming from a different hemisphere and these are things you don’t get as a player. You’re in your own little world, and then in your early days as a coach, again you’re a little bit blinkered. You’re trying to get on with your job. You’re trying to make as big an impression as you can. You’re working really hard but sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees and I certainly went through that period with the Scarlets.”
Is coaching as rewarding as playing?
“As long as you get over the fact that you’re never going to play again, it can be as rewarding as you want to make it. If I went out there now I’d be broken. I wouldn’t last two minutes. I know my place now, and hopefully I can give the players the best opportunity to go out and perform, and I think that’s all we can do as coaches.”
A precarious career, all the same. He cites quotes attributed to Brendan Rodgers saying he’s been offered a few jobs since he left Liverpool. “Interesting that he’s not ready to get back into it. Maybe he’s been stung a little bit. But it’s the nature of the game, You have to accept not everything is going to go perfectly and there are going to be times when you’re under pressure or you might have to move to a different job, and maybe a different hemisphere. You have to adapt, and that’s what I’m learning. What I was six years ago is far different from what I am now as a coach.”
Nonetheless, a defensive coach who has never played rugby league? That’s against the rules, no? “I suppose I was born in the north of England, does that help?” The game is so interlinked now, he adds.
So far, so seamless.
Zero line breaks conceded, a tackle success rate around 92 per cent and a tackle count of around 150, with 40 or so assists, according to Easterby. They have tweaked the defensive system since being skinned out wide by Argentina at the World Cup, but, as Easterby stresses: “No matter what system you have, if your contact work and your tackling isn’t right – and the same with the ball – you don’t survive. And we survived because our tackling and our collisions were really good without the ball.”
Easterby’s wariness is akin to Schmidt’s, all the more so with a more liberated and dangerous French side in mind. “The French will always pose threats from individuals. They’ve got the offloading and passing ability, the footwork and the power.
“They look like there’s a bit more structure than maybe what we have seen in the last 18 months to two years. But it’s one thing knowing what they are going to do, but the French will always do something unexpected as well.”
As part of his multi-tasking, there’s also Easterby’s proven abilities as a forwards coach, and last Sunday saw a return of eight lineouts from nine, including one potent maul and a clever variation off the tail akin to the move that led to Keith Wood’s try against England in 2002, which Easterby, then part of the team, no doubt borrowed.
Of course, as with the defence, these are early days, and any team in the world is liable to feel the fallout from the retirement of a such a figure as Paul O’Connell. Working with someone who had been “an incredible team-mate” had been, Easterby admits, part of the job’s attraction two years ago.
“We had lots of really good discussions. Some of those discussions were debates around what we felt could work. We don’t have the same opinion on everything, and I think that was a really good period for me as a young coach coming back into this environment and working with someone like Paulie. He has such a broad knowledge that he challenges you, and that’s a good place to be. It makes you think about things a little bit differently.”
Life, and rugby, moves on. Against Wales, Devin Toner assumed the role of calling lineouts, and clever use of shortened lineouts also negated Wales picking a strong defensive lineout with potentially three pods.
“But in Cardiff in the Six Nations last year we missed those chances and I think the lineout failure that day probably had a big impact on the result. It was something that we were very mindful of going into the game; the threat that they posed at the lineout but also how we might be exposed if we didn’t get our lifts right, and our throws, our jumps and our calls, and I think on the whole we got those things right.”
It sets a benchmark.
The plotting began in Wales too. Easterby and his wife, rugby TV presenter Sarra Elgan, and their two kids Soffia (nine next week) and Ffredi (six) continue to live in Wales. Helpfully, Sarra’s parents live in a house which is attached to theirs.
“Because Sarra’s is very similar, and when she’s away I’m away, so it works out really well, and Joe is very supportive and is very good with me in terms of me working from home.”
So what’s it like to work with Schmidt, this uber-demanding, highly-driven head coach and his famed attention to detail?
Easterby pauses to consider the right words. “When you’re in camp it’s great, it’s full on and you’re really driven to raise the bar, and I think because Joe’s work ethic and standards are second to none as his assistant, you want to be the best assistant, and try to support that as best you can.
“Because he has those high standards, we’re all driven by that as well – the other coaches – to deliver high standards. And it should be like that.”
One day, naturally, Easterby would like to be a head coach again, but he knows this coaching game is a marathon, not a sprint.
“Yes, I would, but I think it was the right time for me to step out of what I was doing, for many reasons.
“As long as I’m continuing to develop and grow my coaching and knowledge, I want to be the best assistant I can be. At the moment I’m in a good place and I feel like I’m contributing as well as learning. I don’t want to rush things.”
Easterby is under contract until the end of this season, and talks are at an advanced stage regarding a new contract. “I’m really happy where I am. I enjoy working with Joe and the other guys.
“My development is certainly going the right way, working in this group, and hopefully that will continue.”
He’s too important to be lost to the ticket now.