Monday 25 September 2017

Invisible man bidding to take Munster by surprise

Former Ireland back-row Easterby can wreck Reds' Euro dream in new role as Scarlets defence coach

David Kelly

David Kelly

IT was often said that Simon Easterby's best work was done beneath a cloak of invisibility. Perhaps now we finally know why. For in the new book by the Scarlets loyalist, 'Easter Rising', due in Irish shops this week ahead of the Heineken Cup double-header against Munster, a literally revealing story finally tells all.

After the seminal Six Nations victory against Scotland in 2000, there followed the proverbial seisiun.

Easterby had debuted alongside John Hayes, Peter Stringer, Ronan O'Gara and Shane Horgan in a game that at once relaunched Irish rugby after a bleak few years and saved then coach Warren Gatland's job.

The following morning, Easterby was summoned to see Gatland and manager Donal Lenihan, who had a video to show him. Easterby was expecting an impromptu review of what he had thought was a pretty decent debut.

Instead, it was CCTV footage of a man walking through the lobby of the hotel stark naked and going into the bar where he ordered a drink. Pre-YouTube, mercifully, the footage went no further.

Gatland contented himself with giving the new boy a dressing down and having a laugh about it.

Exposed

Easterby would never allow himself to be so publicly exposed again during a career that embraced the Lions, a record number of appearances -- 65 -- for an Irish international flanker and five successive seasons as captain of the Scarlets.

"I've been a pretty basic player throughout my career and I've just got on with my job," is his self-deprecating illustration of himself.

That basic job entailed being the foil guy for the flashier back-rows, the guy who ended up mining the hidden seams of every single dangerous ruck, the guy who spoiled opposition ball, the guy who tackled like a demonic dervish.

Those of us who were there on a fraught day in Killiney a few years back vividly recall Eddie O'Sullivan's stout defence of a player who was regularly ridiculed in match ratings -- "quite apt that his best work is invisible" etc.

"That's nonsense, in my view," retorted O'Sullivan. "People claim I have a bias towards Simon because he played in underage teams that I coached, but if that was the case, it would apply to a number of others too.

"Simon is one of the most respected back-rows in world rugby. He proved that on the Lions tour and he's a world class tail-of-the-line jumper. Mentally and physically, Simon is as hard a player as I have ever met."

That he ended up hurting for Ireland was not as straightforward as one might think. Son of an Englishman, Yorkshire born and bred, Easterby's Irish connections were bequeathed by his mother, Katherine Doyle, who hailed from Blackrock. She also bequeathed sporting genes, having played hockey for Pembroke Wanderers and Ireland. Doyle's marriage to Henry Easterby, of the famous Flat racing dynasty, ensured her family would be brought up in the market town of Tadcaster, in the Selby district of Yorkshire.

In his book, Simon details extensively the idyllic life growing up on the stud farm, first initiated by his grandfather, Walter. Although Henry didn't engage fully with the racing bug, uncles Peter and Mick were already becoming renowned practitioners.

Simon followed older brother and future Irish international Guy into the celebrated Ampleforth Catholic boarding college; starting as a hooker, he didn't announce himself as easily as his older brother.

"They had 20 rugby pitches on this amazing site," Easterby recalled while publicising his autobiography last week. "It was a pretty isolated place run by Benedictine monks on the north edge of the Yorkshire moors.

"Rugby was a huge focus. John Wilcox, the former Lion, had a real pedigree of getting the best from his pupils. On the whole, it was an amazing experience and it gave me a foothold in life.

"I wouldn't have swapped it for anything. We had a working farm and that's what I did when I left. Rugby wasn't a career then so I didn't see it in my future. I'd travelled a bit and didn't fancy university so it seemed like the farm for me."

Neither brother had been scouted by the English schools system, hence their reticence. Both had former Ireland Exiles chief scout and bottle washer Phelim McLoughlin to thank for ushering them away from the English system.

The groundwork was laid by Easterby's uncle, Eddie Doyle, who made it known that his nephew, who had begun playing with local side Harrogate, had Irish connections.

"I'm everything really, that's part of the theme of the book," Easterby says.

"I was born into an English background, Yorkshire born and bred. But I spent summers and Christmases in Ireland so that was always there in my background. I have been called a mongrel but it's not offensive to me. It's part of who I am."

As he also reveals in the book, a dramatic late intervention from Clive Woodward could have altered the course of his international future, despite earning several Irish U-21 caps and even an 'A' cap.

"He called to invite me to South Africa to tour," he recalls.

"It was a nice invitation but I didn't have to think about it. I'd committed to Ireland and that was it."

England would win a World Cup in 2003, featuring Richard Hill as a world-class blind-side flanker. Two years later, however, injuries to Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio created the chance for Easterby to become one of the standout players on Woodward's ill-fated 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand.

Although a late starter -- 24 when first capped -- his courage was unquestioned.

He has suffered scraped eyeballs, split eyelids, he has swallowed his tongue and been stamped where the sun does and doesn't shine; Achilles, tendon and hand injuries have pockmarked his time in the green and red jerseys.

Now, he has crossed the room in his role as defence coach as the Scarlets seek to maintain their surprisingly good start to their Heineken Cup campaign, after shocking last season's beaten finalists Northampton Saints.

"I tried to lead by example as a captain and not ask anyone to do what I wouldn't do.

"Now in this new role, you have to step back a little. It's frustrating and I'm trying to manage those expectations," he says.

"As a player all a coach wanted from you was to be prepared and willing to give everything you had on a Saturday. Now, if I can look myself in the mirror and say that I've done everything I can to give the team information to play, then I'm happy.

Opportunity

"After that, it's up to the players. But I'm happy with my life now. The game moves on so quickly. I wouldn't last two minutes if I was out there now. It's a great opportunity for me but I do appreciate that it is difficult working with your former players."

Scarlets head coach Nigel Davies spoke enthusiastically about Easterby's contribution following the Welsh outfit's opening brace of Heineken Cup successes.

"One of the positives for us this season has been our game without the ball which has gone up a couple of notches and Simon has done some superb work for us," acknowledged Davies.

The former Irish favourite may also hold the key to unlocking the much-improved Munster set-piece over two weekends which will define each side's European ambitions for this season.

"Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan have a huge amount of time for the line-out and that's almost their baby," according to Easterby.

"And I've taken a lot from the way they work. I'm trying to take that into my role at the Scarlets because they work as hard as anybody I know in that skill of the game."

So, once more this weekend, Simon Easterby's best work will be mostly hidden from public view. Just as he likes it.

Rugby's moving day

It's rugby's version of moving day -- the back-to-back clashes that make up rounds three and four of the Heineken Cup. Teams can make great strides towards qualification -- or the trap door.

How they stand:

Leinster

Next on the list -- Bath (a) 12.45, December 11; and (h) 18.0 (Lansdowne Road) December 17.

Joe Schmidt's side have coped even better with player management this season and are riding high at home and in Europe. All this without you know who. Bath are an ordinary side who will try to rip it up at the Rec.

Verdict -- Leinster will seek a nine-point haul to move into pole position to qualify as a top-four seed.

Munster

Next on the list -- Scarlets (a) 15.40, December 10; (h) 12.45, December 18.

There are just 20 miles between the Liberty Stadium, where Munster lost on Saturday, and Parc y Scarlets. It could be a significant journey in Munster's revival as a European force. With Northampton away last, Munster need the two wins.

Verdict -- Munster can double up -- just.

Ulster

Next on the list -- Aironi (h) 19.45, December 9; (a) 14.30, December 17. Nothing but 10 points -- as they accrued last year en route to qualification -- will suffice. You get the feeling they're only treading water.

Verdict -- Ten points.

Connacht

Next on the list -- Gloucester (h) 13.30, December 10; (a) 15.40, December 17. Already out of the competition -- practically if not mathematically -- Connacht's dire league record has undermined their virginal Heineken Cup experience. Gloucester's qualification hopes are equally grim.

Verdict -- Saturday could be Connacht's only hope of a win.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport