Leinster no laughing matter for Easterby
"Being funny is not anyone's first choice" – Woody Allen
GUY EASTERBY is known for his affability, sharp wit and showstealing ability to entertain.
Those are qualities you would imagine would rank high on anyone’s wishlist and certainly ones that have made the former Ireland scrum-half and current Leinster team manager a popular member of every squad he has been involved in.
And yet, when Easterby reflects on a five-year international career that yielded just one competitive start against a top-tier nation, he echoes Allen’s observation on the merits of being ‘blessed’ with comedic ability.
“Looking back, if I could have sat quietly at the back of the bus and started every game in the Six Nations rather than be up the front cracking gags and then sitting on the bench, I would happily swap.”
Easterby was the funny man, the caustic commentator, the man on the mic – tags that can colour public perception when it comes to assessing the day job.
Ask Donncha O’Callaghan, the Munster and Ireland second-row with a fondness for ‘the craic’, who is constantly subjected to ‘Joker in the Pack’ headlines which do not reflect a thoroughly professional approach to his primary duties.
“It’s something that always followed me around,” agrees Easterby. “I came from the amateur era when it was all pints and slagging and a bit of banter is something I always enjoyed.
“I’d always be up the top on the bus having a go at guys for messing up in training or something that happened the night before, but it didn’t mean I was any less committed to my rugby, they were separate things.”
Born in Yorkshire, Easterby and his brother Simon qualified for Ireland through their mother and both began their international careers in 2000. But, while his younger sibling became a mainstay on Ireland’s blindside flank, Guy was never able to nail down the number nine shirt. When he stepped off the international stage in 2005, not long before his 34th birthday, he had 28 caps, but only seven starts and there was a lingering frustration that he never got a run of matches to properly prove himself.
The main reason was the presence of Peter Stringer. The Corkman’s debut against Scotland in 2000 coincided with a turnaround in Ireland’s rugby fortunes.
Such was Stringer’s impact that he became virtually undroppable, with Easterby assigned the role of designated understudy (as well as unofficial entertainment officer).
Both were defined by size and passing. Stringer was small, slippy and the quickest gunslinger in the west, Easterby was big, bruising and constantly criticised for his speed of delivery.
Easterby got one genuine chance to usurp his rival and it just happened to the day Ireland, ultimately, blew the Grand Slam. After beating Italy and France in the spring of 2001, the footand-mouth outbreak meant that Ireland were not able to complete their Six Nations programme until the autumn.
First up were the Scots at Murrayfield on September 22 when Ireland left out Stringer, Mick Galwey and David Wallace – who had all shone in the Six Nations matches before the break – and brought in Easterby, Jeremy Davidson and Kieron Dawson. They were no more to blame than any of their team-mates, but Ireland put in a brutal performance and the Scots went on to win by 22 points.
The criticism rained down, the team was changed and when Warren Gatland’s side went on to beat Wales and England, that Murrayfield selection went down in Irish rugby folklore as one of the most misguided in history.
“That Scotland game was my chance,” he says. “I was told that selection was a toss of a coin between myself and Peter. I got the nod but, for whatever reason, we were shocking. It was hard to come back from that, they had to make changes and Peter was back in.”
Though never able to establish himself as Ireland scum-half, Easterby is proud of the 28 caps he won and enjoyed a distinguished club career, primarily with Llanelli and Leinster, until finally calling it a day a few seasons back. After working in a scouting capacity for Leinster, he became involved in the ‘A’ team as manager before succeeding Chris Whitaker as senior manager when the Australian followed Michael Cheika to Stade Francais.
It is a multi-tasked role, a hands-on involvement in many aspects of on and off-field operations, working closely with head coach Joe Schmidt, chief executive Mick Dawson, the Academy coaches and the media and marketing operations. It is a responsibility Easterby takes very seriously.
“It’s important to do whatever we can to keep Leinster heading in the right direction. I see my job as helping to keep stuff off Joe’s (Schmidt) desk and let him concentrate on getting the team right. The facilities and overall professionalism are so much better than when I came here first six years ago and I think Cheika deserves a lot of credit for that.
“Commercially, I think there is great work being done also. Our support base is increasing all around the province, not just Dublin, and we are trying to give fans a proper experience. You can see from the crowds we get at the RDS, it rarely drops below 16,000, that it’s successful and the fact we have sold around 40,000 tickets for the return match with Clermont in the Aviva is brilliant.”
One of the major issues facing Easterby and everyone in Leinster is holding on to their star players with bigmoney suitors from France and England sniffing around for post-World Cup contracts. There is also the issue of sharing players with Connacht under the recently announced blueprint that includes a commitment by other provinces to send players west.
“Fionn Carr, Ian Keatley, Sean Cronin and Jamie Hagan have shown how moving to Connacht can further your career, but we have to make sure we don’t send someone out when they’re not ready, which could be counterproductive for everyone,” he said.
“But I think the concept is good for Irish rugby. We are also going to see clubs looking to sign our established players after the World Cup. England have said they will not pick overseas players and that means the French clubs will be looking harder at Irish options. There is a lot of money being thrown around, but the argument I would make is that here, Irish players have a quality of life based on friends, family and the fact that they are well looked after and it was good also that the tax incentive was not affected in the budget.”
Speaking of France, Leinster face a daunting assignment against Schmidt’s old side Clermont on Sunday. They will be taking on the Top 14 champions on their home patch and the financial clout of the French heavyweights is emphasised by a Clermont squad that drips international quality.
Does Easterby believe the French sides have moved too far ahead? Can Leinster realistically win the Heineken cup this year?
“Absolutely, although these back-toback matches will have a huge say in that,” he said.
“It’s been said all week, if we go over there trying to grab a losing bonus point, we are sunk. We have to believe we can win, but that does not mean we throw caution to the wind either.
“That would not make a lot of sense with the knowledge that Joe has. There will be tactical approach but that’s not to say we won’t go after them. If we can beat Clermont over there, it will rank right up there. They are a serious outfit and we are massive underdogs.”
No laughing matter, you might say.