Harlequins, quietly re-establishing themselves as a Premiership concern after the trauma of relegation and the frustration of wasting a season in the back alleys and cul-de-sacs of the Second Division, are beginning to interest the England hierarchy once again. No, they have not lost their director of rugby, Dean Richards, to the national cause - not yet, at any rate. The big news at the Stoop Memorial Ground yesterday was the sudden promotion of Nick Easter, their big back-row forward, to Test status.
The 28-year-old flanker will win his first cap in this weekend's Six Nations Championship match with Italy at Twickenham, taking over the blind-side duties from Joe Worsley of Wasps, who injured his neck during the second half of the opening-round victory over Scotland. Worsley was not considered for selection, although Brian Ashton, the England coach, believes he will recover in good time to face Ireland in Dublin a fortnight on Saturday.
Easter, a sizeable unit at 18st-plus, has come with a hiss and a roar - or rather, a stomp and a bellow - to beat the likes of Pat Sanderson of Worcester and Chris Jones of Sale to the vacant slot in the England pack, although Lewis Moody of Leicester would certainly have been first in line to replace Worsley had he not suffered a shoulder injury during training last week. Ashton expressed fears before the Scotland game that Moody would struggle to make the date with the Azzurri, and so it has transpired.
Richards, very much a contender for the England team managership if and when the job is advertised, described Easter as Harlequins' form player over the last couple of campaigns.
"He came late to Premiership rugby, but has done extremely well and thoroughly deserves his chance," said the former Lions No 8, no doubt thinking of the 19 tries Easter contributed to the London club's promotion surge last season. Not that the new cap has ever been backwards in coming forwards on the try-scoring front. While playing for lowly Orrell in 2002, he struck a substantial blow for rugby's great unwashed by putting a hat-trick past Northampton in a cup tie.
Ashton heard good reports of Easter over the weekend, following his appearance off the bench in the England second-string's victory over Italy A at Exeter. All the same, it is a left-field selection that will give the visiting coaches something to chew on ahead of their trip to Twickenham.
The Azzurri back row, boasting as it does the likes of Mauro Bergamasco and Sergio Parisse, is not the worst in the world, and if the Italian tight forwards scrummage well, they will spend a fair bit of time on the front foot. Easter will have to tackle his socks off and then tackle some more. It is an interesting test for him, to say the least.
There will be one other change to the starting line-up, assuming Iain Balshaw confirms his fitness after an ill-timed bout of groin trouble. The Gloucester full-back was named ahead of his young clubmate, Olly Morgan, who played the whole game against Scotland after being called into the side on the eve of the match. "I thought Olly did a good job, but I have gone for Iain's greater experience at international level," said Ashton, one of Balshaw's most enthusiastic devotees.
On the bench, Shaun Perry of Bristol has beaten Peter Richards of Gloucester to the deputy scrum-half role, having shone in the Exeter game on his return from a rib injury. Perry made his international debut against the All Blacks last autumn, but has since lost ground to Harry Ellis, the Leicester half-back who performed so exceptionally at the weekend. The No 9 position is now one of strength, especially as one of Easter's team-mates at the Stoop, the brilliant youngster Danny Care, underlined his credentials with a display of considerable virtuosity for England Under-20s last Friday night.
Ireland, relieved to escape from Wales with a first-round win and no doubt grateful to the New Zealand referee Kelvin Deaker for the generosity of his decision-making, do not yet know if their captain, Brian O'Driscoll, will be in any condition to face France at Croke Park on Sunday. The 2005 Lions captain damaged a hamstring during his try-scoring performance at the Millennium Stadium and was scheduled to undergo a scan yesterday. "It's too early to say whether Brian will be available," said Eddie O'Sullivan, the coach. "He's sore and has a bruise on the back of his thigh that complicates matters. It isn't known whether the bruising will affect the injury."
However, O'Driscoll's midfield partner, Gordon D'Arcy, is expected to perform, despite playing for much of the Wales game with a groin injury.
From Village people to red rose debut: Meteoric rise of Nick Easter
Nick Easter is lucky to be playing at all. Sent off after receiving two yellow cards during a Premiership game at Bath last month, he escaped suspension when a disciplinary tribunal decided the dismissal was sufficient punishment. The 6ft 4in back-rower sharpened his rugby education by spending a season with the Villagers club in South Africa. He joined Orrell in 2001, moving to Harlequins three years later. He was player of the year in his first season and spearheaded Quins' top-flight return.
England team to face Italy (Saturday, Twickenham, 1.30pm)
I Balshaw (Gloucester); J Lewsey (Wasps), M Tindall (Gloucester), A Farrell (Saracens), J Robinson (Sale); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), H Ellis (Leicester); P Freshwater (Perpignan), G Chuter (Leicester), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), L Deacon (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), N Easter Harlequins), M Lund (Sale), M Corry (Leicester).
Replacements: L Mears (Bath), J White (Leicester), T Palmer, T Rees (both Wasps), S Perry (Bristol), T Flood, M Tait (both Newcastle).Reuse content