When Stuart Lancaster succeeded Martin Johnson as England boss following the laughably undisciplined, depressingly tawdry World Cup campaign in New Zealand in 2011, his required reading included an official warts-and-all review of the whole sorry saga.
He was not remotely amused by the contents, to the extent that his immediate priority was to “change the culture” in the red-rose camp and immediately restore some dignity to the shirt.
Rightly or wrongly, the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter, undoubtedly one of the more skilful footballing back-rowers of his generation, was one of those most heavily stained by events in All Black country, and among the first to be ditched by Lancaster as a consequence.
A little over three years on, he is back in the red rose frame at the age of 36. It is quite a story, by any standards.
If it is reasonable to suggest that Easter would be nowhere near the current England squad had the in-form Ben Morgan of Gloucester not suffered a serious injury earlier this month, and that Billy Vunipola of Saracens is a stone cold certainty to perform the No 8 role against Wales in Cardiff a little over two weeks from now, it is equally true to say that Lancaster has selected on form.
Back in the autumn, Thomas Waldrom of Exeter was third in line. The change in ranking is down to Easter, and Easter alone.
His recent command performance against Leicester bordered on the artistic: some of his off-loading was as delicately executed and perfectly timed as the infamous comment attributed to him after the World Cup quarter-final defeat by France – “That’s £35k down the toilet” – was also crassly misconceived.
According to Lancaster, he had played himself on to the selectorial radar before that league game at The Stoop, but the plaudits he received after it increased the size of the blip by a factor of thousands.
When Lancaster met Easter a couple of days ago, for the first time since the uncomfortable conversation in December 2011, the coach “went back over time” and reiterated his view of events in New Zealand.
But he also made it clear that Morgan’s misfortune had opened up a genuine opportunity, and that the Harlequin fully deserved the chance to grasp it.
A fair bit of water had passed under the bridge since we last met,” said the coach. “We had a good chat this time, and to be fair, he has been playing some outstanding rugby.”
Perhaps the most glowing of yesterday’s references came from the England forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, who – unlike Lancaster – worked with Easter at that benighted global gathering in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
“You can see the professionalism Nick brings to his work in the way he’s looked after himself,” he said. “His game interventions haven’t dropped off at all and he is quick for an old-timer.”
Quick enough to find a way past Vunipola?
Hardly. But if the younger man adds some subtlety to his game as a result of working in close proximity with Easter, this most unexpected of comebacks will be fruitful indeed.Reuse content