SIMON EASTERBY IS rumoured to be close to agreeing a deal to join Ireland as forwards coach ahead of the November Tests, replacing the departed John Plumtree.
As reported by Ruaidhri O’Connor of the Irish Independent this morning, former Ireland international Easterby is in line to join Joe Schmidt’s coaching staff and take control of the pack.
It is now known whether or not such a move would involve the 38-year-old quitting his current role as the head coach of the Scarlets. The Welsh club have stated that they will not be making any comments around the current speculation.
Easterby would represent a slightly left-field appointment by Schmidt, given the ex-blindside flanker’s relative inexperience in coaching terms. His first non-playing role came as recently as 2010, when a knee injury forced him to hang up his boots.
While playing success does not always translate smoothly into coaching ability, Easterby’s record on the pitch is nonetheless impressive. After making his international debut against Scotland in 2000, the Yorkshire native went on to win 65 Ireland caps.
The tough flanker contributed to the Triple Crown-winning campaigns in 2004, 2006 and 2007, as well as earning a call-up to the 2005 Lions when Lawrence Dallaglio broke an ankle.
Despite arriving late to New Zealand, Easterby forced his way into the starting XV for the final two Tests and was one of the Lions’ better performers in those games. The Scarlets head coach’s final international appearance came against England in 2008.
In club rugby, Easterby first made his name with Leeds Carnegie, before making a move to Llanelli RFC in 1999. The advent of the Welsh regional sides in 2003 saw him begin a stint as a Scarlets stalwart, and Easterby ended his career having spent five seasons as club captain.
Into the coaching world
Having been forced to retire, Easterby swiftly moved onto the backroom staff at the Scarlets in 2010, when he was appointed defence coach on a two-year contract. Within that term, the Welsh side’s defensive record improved notably.
In 2012, the departure of Nigel Davies opened the head coaching position and the Scarlets did not hesitate in offering Easterby the role. In his first season, the former Ireland international led his team to the semi-finals of the Pro12.
The campaign just passed, the Scarlets finished sixth in the league. In the Heineken Cup, Easterby’s coaching saw the Welsh club pick up two wins in their 12 games over two years.
What are his strengths?
John Plumtree’s main role in the past season under Schmidt was to provide Ireland with a high-quality line-out and mauling platform. With Greg Feek installed as full-time scrum coach, Les Kiss focusing on defence and Schmidt himself a renowned breakdown guru, the Ireland forwards coaching role is less open-ended a position than elsewhere.
Easterby was well-known as an excellent line-out operator in his days, jumping himself and calling the set-piece with intelligence. A sharp, observant player, the flanker read opposition plays expertly and also demonstrated a commitment to analysing line-outs.
Those strengths have an obvious transfer into coaching, particularly the basic skills of jumping, movement and lifting involved. Improving and maintaining such fundamental abilities are the cornerstone of Schmidt’s philosophy.
While Easterby does have a forwards coach working under him at the Scarlets in Danny Wilson, it is likely that he has been involved with the pack in a hands-on sense himself.
Many of the mental attributes that Easterby displayed as a player have made his shift into coaching less than surprising. He captained Ireland in 2005 when Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll were both injured, while he was club captain at the Scarlets for five years.
An uncompromising individual, the 38-year-old has always had an open, honest and no-nonsense approach to rugby. That kind of personality would sit well with Schmidt, Kiss and Feek.
While Ireland are well covered in the area of defence in choke-tackle pioneer Kiss, his intense involvements with Ulster over the coming season may mean an extra pair of hands would be useful in that area.
Easterby’s time at the Scarlets has seen their defence operate in a similarly stifling manner to how Ireland look to set up. As a player, he was technically superb in the chop tackle and with the higher body shots and chokes.
However, it is likely that Schmidt is looking for a direct replacement for Plumtree at the line-out and maul, a coach who can aid the influential O’Connell in maintaining and improving Ireland’s play in those aspects of the game.
Such a focused job briefing might also allow Easterby to continue in his position as head coach of the Scarlets if he is to join Ireland, although Schmidt would surely prefer a full-time appointment to replace Plumtree.
Even if this deal does not go through, the recognition for Easterby is well deserved. The speculation also perhaps shows that Schmidt is willing to think outside the box when it comes to dealing with set backs and attempting to make Ireland a better team.