Unassuming Simon Easterby much more than a lucky charm
The former international is playing a big role again for Ireland as forwards coach
Simon Easterby: “Why can’t this be the period when Ireland win back-to-back championships.” Photograph: Russell Pritchard/Inpho/Presseye
Come the full-time whistle today and Simon Easterby could have a highly-distinguished place in the history of Irish rugby.
He played a part in the previous Irish record of 10 straight wins – albeit only in the first three – and although he is quick to point out he has only been involved in the last six of the current 10-match winning run, in that inimitably low-key, understated yet highly-effective way of his, Easterby has clearly been more than a lucky charm.
He won the first of his 65 caps in the revitalising 44-22 win over Scotland at Lansdowne Road when one of five new caps under Warren Gatland.
“It was frantic, not like anything I’d known before. You look back and think what were we like? Big, baggy shirts and we looked a little bit ragged, but we were good for the win, and we all contributed, and it was the start of something really special.”
Yet although there were many more wins than losses for the first time ever over the course of his nine seasons in the team, along with being an ever-present in three Triple Crowns, there remains a nagging sense of underachievement.
“We were a close on a number of occasions but for whatever reason we just didn’t quite get over the line,” he says of the five runners-up finishes during those nine years.
“The disappointing one for me was 2007. We lost at home to France but we still had the opportunity to go and win the title and didn’t do it, and that was probably the most disappointing, even if we did show that we were capable of going places and getting results, and the win at home that year against England was pretty special. But yeah, we had opportunities over seven or eight years and didn’t take them. I finished in 2008 and in 2009 the lads went and won the Grand Slam,” he concludes with good-natured irony.
True supporterKevin Maggs
As Ireland seek a third title in seven years, Easterby speaks of the challenging environment he and the squad now work in, how Joe Schmidt and Paul O’Connell drive this, and admits Ireland has “more depth than in my day”.
Unlike his adopted home of Wales, Irish rugby didn’t have the rich tradition which the wizards of the ’70s passed on through the generations in red, but now there is a consistency and confidence in their ability which perhaps his generation didn’t have.
Enda Kenny on Paul O'Connell's 100th cap
“Why can’t this be the period when Ireland wins back-to-back championships? There’s nothing stopping these players doing that and in 10 years’ time we’ll hopefully look back and say this was our period for Irish rugby, from 2009 to 2019.”
Easterby,Yorkshire-born and reared, of Anglo-Irish extraction, has lived for the last 16 years in Wales.
“A mongrel,” he smiles. “It’s an odd one. I never stop appreciating what I’ve had. I’ve been so fortunate. You have to have a certain amount of belief and confidence and ability to play at the highest level, but I’ve no done it differently from a lot of players.”
His mother Katherine (nee Doyle), hailed from Blackrock and played hockey for Ireland before marrying Henry Easterby, a Yorkshire farmer who passed away in 2009. At under-21 level, Easterby decided he wanted to play for Ireland.
“I had that call from Clive Woodward, ” he recalls, before his Irish debut, “and at the time I was thinking ‘is this really Clive Woodward?’ And I just told him ‘look, I don’t need to think about it’ because it wasn’t an issue for me. I don’t think I would have regretted it if I’d never got capped, and playing outside of Ireland wouldn’t have helped my cause.”
Irish holidays and his extended Irish family of grandparents and cousins extended the emotional link.
“I don’t come across with an Irish accent and there’s lots of people I know in the UK who don’t have an Irish accent but regard themselves as Irish, and are exactly that other than an accent. I loved where I grew up. I loved being a Yorkshireman, but I love my Irish roots. And once I made that commitment I’m fairly loyal, so I said that’s it. By hook or by crook I’m going to try and get noticed, and thankfully I did.”
On St Stephen’s Day in 2009, against the Ospreys, his career was ended by a knee injury, and he admits to his enormous debt toward the Scarlets, for “taking a punt on me” as a coach after combining it with playing, and then helped the transition by making him first a forwards coach and then, three years later, as head coach in replacing Nigel Davies.
“Nothing can quite match playing. Coaching is a slight step back but it’s close enough for you to feel you can still be part of that environment, and to assist the players to becoming the best they can be.”
Some coaches influenced him more than others, and he names his former Scarlets’ coach Gareth Jenkins.
“He wasn’t really well organised. He didn’t necessarily have every duck in order, but he knew the game inside out. He could pick things from backs to forwards, he reads the game well and he had a passion . . .
“I think Gareth always had that balance. There was also a fun element to playing for him and also a lot of passion. I’ve also picked up little bits from coaches and players over the years, and I’ve learned a huge amount in the last seven months.”
When the chance to replace John Plumtree arose, Easterby’s familiarity with the Irish scene and Paul O’Connell helped, for the two were seven seasons together as team-mates and fellow lineout schemers.
“He inspires, doesn’t he?” says Easterby of the Irish captain. “He did it as a youngster with his big ginger mop of hair. He exudes all that’s good about Irish rugby. He’s passionate. He’s incredibly motivated. He’s aggressive without being dirty. He has an unbelievable energy to keep going.
“Against Australia, you saw the ferocity of his line speed and tackle in the 79th minute. It’s the mark of the man that he has overcome some bad injuries which have kept him out of the game for times. He’s going to be huge boots to fill as well.”
Easterby also has huge respect for Gatland and the Welsh selectors, listing off his and their many successes. “They do like to play a certain way under Gats, and his mantra: ‘This is what we are and you’ve got to stop us’. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s been successful.
“But we can’t assume anything either, and how they’re going to play. Assumption in any walk of life is dangerous, but in rugby in particular, when you’ve got 80 minutes of two coaches like Joe and Gats going head-to-head, two intelligent teams, two half-backs, two secondrows in Paulie and Alun Wyne – really good tacticians – then you’ve got the makings of a really great game of rugby where there’ll be very fine margins.
I don’t think either side will want it more, and it will maybe come down to an error here or a bit of good play there. And that’s the difference at this level.”