When a man with 91 Wales caps and two British and Irish Lion tours under his belt describes Easterby as “right up there with the best I’ve played with”, you tend to listen. Ken Owens was just a teenaged Llanelli fan in the crowd when he first laid eyes on the flanker, now Ireland’s defence coach, in action during a local derby against Neath.
“I remember going to the Gnoll in the late nineties, when he was new on the scene,” says Owens. “He scored a hat-trick. A few years later, when I was lucky enough to play for Scarlets, I saw how he was able to produce performances like that: by setting high standards, training like he played, with determination and motivation to be the best.” (Warren Gatland said much the same thing when he explained to a 24-year-old Easterby why he was handing him his first Ireland cap in 2000: put simply, he had trained the house down.)
Easterby, twelve years Owens’s senior, made the young hooker on the cusp of living his dream feel welcome. That a public school-educated Yorkshireman became leader of Welsh rugby’s most fiercely patriotic team – and of a side featuring luminaries such as Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel – speaks volumes about his standing in the game’s heartland.
“He had massive respect in West Wales, and he’d arrived with a good recommendation from Phil Davies,” explains Owens, referring to the former Scarlets and Wales back rower, now an influential figure in World Rugby. It was while playing in a lower-league match for Leeds against Harrogate that Davies first identified the man who today masterminds the Irish defence. A physical confrontation between the two convinced him that this irrepressible forward had just the spirit his own Leeds team required, and soon Easterby was headed to Headingley.
Appropriate, then, that it was versus Leeds that Easterby walked his Scarlets out to face in November 2007; a slow procession in memory of a Llanelli icon, Ray Gravell, and in whose name the home side claimed a stirring 59-19 EDF Cup victory. Easterby was a pallbearer for the man in whose footsteps he had followed as captain at Stradey Park.
“The way Simon played and bought into Scarlets rugby was there for all to see,” Owens says. “He loved the place and had a passion for the club. If you needed a turnover, he’d be the one to get it.”
That same year, while on Ireland duty, Easterby had lamented the perceived chasm between northern and southern hemisphere rugby. "No, I don't think we get the respect from the southern hemisphere teams,” he said, before crucially adding, “and that's because we don't beat them regularly enough. They've got an arrogance that they take with them on to the pitch.” A decade or so later, Easterby would help change that perception of Irish rugby in dramatic fashion.
Under his watch, Ireland conceded a record-low ten tries across the past two Championships, but his first true foray into coaching began while he was still lacing up his boots. Owens recalls the switch in role being an interesting time for Easterby: “He was player-coach for a while, so it took a little time for that transition to come into effect. It was easier for him once he went fully into coaching, because he didn’t have a lot of time to find his feet. He ended up being head coach pretty soon and did a really good job. It’s actually pretty remarkable how quickly he settled in.
“In his first season we got to the league play-offs. This was against a backdrop of tough times due to budget cuts at Scarlets and he got the best out of a young squad. Pretty soon after that he was snapped up by Ireland.”
Hard as he worked on the pitch as a player, Easterby knew how to unwind off it. An uproarious anecdote, recounted in his autobiography, tells of the time on his stag do when he, along with elder brother and fellow Ireland international Guy, ended up in the Australian cricket team’s dressing room in Leicester – and asked captain Ricky Ponting whether it was time he retired. It’s unlikely they went on to discuss the finer art of leadership after that, but only a few months later, in November 2005, Easterby captained Ireland for the first time.
It was something of a defining year for him. His father-in-law, Elgan Rees, had toured New Zealand and South Africa with the Lions in the seventies, and in 2005 Easterby would receive the same honour. As an injury replacement for a fellow Old Amplefordian, Lawrence Dallaglio, he showed why he should have been on tour from the beginning with some heroic displays in a losing cause, forcing his way into the Test team. Martin Johnson, a touchstone for the Lions, even singled him out for praise.
Easterby had a point to prove, it seems, and it’s one that chimes with one of Owens’s standout memories of the man. “We were playing in Europe in one of my first seasons, and there was a lot of talk about Simon potentially losing his Irish spot to Ulster’s Neil Best,” says Owens. “We were playing out in Belfast and it’s probably one of the most ridiculous games of rugby I’ve seen a person play. Angry is the wrong way to describe it. It was so personal, but not at the same time. He absolutely dominated the game, but was in complete control – making things happen by sheer force of will.”
He recognises in Easterby the same qualities he’s benefited from in another of the world’s leading defence coaches. “He’s in a similar vein to Shaun Edwards,” believes Owens, who won multiple Championships with an Edwards-designed defence. “He’s a guy who’ll give you everything when you’re in the trenches. How passionate he is about what he does makes you want to give him that in return. You know he’ll have your back. There’s no coincidence Ireland have been one of the best teams in the world since he’s been there.”
After all his noted accomplishments as player and coach, it’s curious to see how Easterby takes a low profile, despite his role in Ireland’s phenomenal run of form. You sense he wouldn’t have it any other way. Owens agrees: “He’s definitely like that. Quite a quiet bloke, softly spoken, but you don’t want to get on the wrong side of him either. That’s how he was as a player. He was never known for his flair or skill, but he’d be the guy making 30 tackles a game, or 40 clear outs at the ruck.”
After a crushing early departure from the World Cup, dare any opposition team underestimate Easterby and Ireland’s motivation to win this upcoming Guinness Six Nations?