Easter rising to the challenge of Rome's eternal obstacles
England's No 8 knows his side will have to put in hard yards if Italy are to fall by the wayside, writes Eddie Butler
England are still moving slowly. At least they are around their hotel, this Wednesday after the Saturday before. They have rested after victory over Wales and are starting to increase the tempo of training, which means that they move on stiff limbs down corridors, sit heavily on chairs.
"Metaphorically there's a spring in our step," Nick Easter says. "But look at us. We're pretty knackered." The No 8 looks fresh from afar but up close he is a mass of nicks and cuts, all raw with not a scab in sight. It is a good feeling, soft tissue burning as it repairs itself after a victory.
Easter was exceptional against Wales, part of the unit of rear-gunners at the lineout that cut off the supply to Jamie Roberts in the Welsh centre. At the scrum he was a tower of strength. You can tell how well a No 8 plays by the form of his scrum-half. Danny Care, too, was outstanding.
There is an engaging modesty to Easter. He will talk up No 8 play only when he is referring to Sergio Parisse, the Italy captain who will not be facing England today, or anyone in the Six Nations, because of a knee injury. "He's got to be the best in the world, hasn't he? He can do everything." He is also quite happy to talk about the other members of the England back-row, Lewis Moody and James Haskell. "Lewis is just everywhere, chasing kicks, tackling. And James is a real specimen, so strong on the ball."
And on himself? "I don't know. I just pick up the pieces."
His coaches have a higher opinion of the player at the centre of the unit that they think is starting to make, according to one of them, John Wells, "a real contribution". Easter is a "very gifted player, very intelligent".
Well, yes, the man in question thought things were coming together but that England were by no means the finished article. "The eight-nine combination wasn't quite right," he says, "but we've been working on it."
If a scrum-half depends on his No 8, the No 8 depends on his front five. And Easter is quick to dismiss any talk that today's encounter will be anything but gruelling. "It always is. Italy are very tough opponents." It means a full-on collision and all those nicks and cuts will be peeled open yet again, with a whole load more to be added. Easter will carry the ball into the Italian tacklers and they will gang up on him. If there are to be frills, they will come only in the last quarter. Martin Johnson says so, Wells says so and Easter says so. England are going to Rome ready for heavy duty.
But there is more to Easter than large legs pumping away to make an extra six inches. He may judge his own gains in small measurements but they are as important as a scrummage that does not move a single inch. They are the building blocks for a more dynamic game. And there is nothing to say that, when the game does become a little more fluid, Easter will not have a part to play. He knows he may not have too many years left -- "I'm not getting any younger," the 31-year-old says.
True, there is a fleck of grey in the hair around the lesion on his ear but his brain should steer him through the mayhem of Moody's world. Easter makes a yard more than seems possible and that remains his primary role. But he has soft hands, too, and an eye for an offload. When England develop from the efficient to the flowing, their No 8 will be at the start of the process. The understanding between himself and the two wing forwards will only improve. They had never played together before the Wales game.
Easter is never going to be the member of the unit who bursts into space, but everyone has his role and how they combine is what matters.
Moody and delicacy do not often travel the same road but, if he can combine with Riki Flutey, a whole new world of space and freedom will open up for the back three of Delon Armitage, Ugo Monye and Mark Cueto. And if Easter can start slipping Care and Haskell between defenders, then England suddenly have a range of attacking options that could seriously stretch any defence.
Haskell on the charge will take out three defenders; Care on the dart is a bag of tricks. It is not impossible to see England in one sweet attack putting their injury-ravaged autumn in the bin and taking the end of the 2009 Six Nations as their point of restart. They were running in tries for fun back then -- 16 of them.
Of course, it may require a little patience, such as a full hour of Easter with his head down and no sign of a flip or a slip. There is a job to do first and there is no point trying to disguise the fact that an away day in Rome is masochistic. Hence the five forwards on the England replacements' bench. But when the hour is up, the time is going to be ripe for a breakout.
Two years ago, the breakout was nearly a breakdown, when Danny Cipriani didn't so much open up the Italians as bring them back into contention.
This should be different. The memory of two years ago is vivid enough for everyone in the camp to refer to it. Forgetting the embarrassment of a close shave with a first defeat by Italy is not an option. England are not going to Rome like Wales did last year, to have a look at a clutch of new players. This is England in resolute mood: an hour of grunt and a quarter of style. And Nick Easter will be at the heart of both operations.
Italy: L McLean; A Masi, G Canale, G Garcia, Mirco Bergamasco; C Gower, T Tebaldi; S Perugini, L Ghiraldini (capt), M Castrogiovanni, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, J Sole, A Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco. Replacements: F Ongaro, M Aguero, V Bernabo, P Derbyshire, P Canavosio, R Bocchino, K Robertson.
England: D Armitage; M Cueto, M Tait, R Flutey, U Monye; J Wilkinson, D Care; T Payne, D Hartley, D Cole, S Shaw, S Borthwick (c), J Haskell, N Easter, L Moody. Replacements: S Thompson, D Wilson, M Mullan, L Deacon, S Armitage, P Hodgson, T Flood.
Referee: C Berdos (Fra)
Italy v England,
RTE 2, BBC1, 2.30