Nick Easter: 'Losing that final still hurts. I can't put it behind me'
The Brian Viner Interview: England's No 8 was part of the side that lost to the Springboks in the 2007 World Cup – now he's desperate to put that right
Monday 29 August 2011
Nick Easter, 6ft 4in tall, not far short of 19 stone and with a voice so deep and hard that it might have been quarried, has not, it is fair to assume, spent much of his adult life quaking in his sizeable boots. But it is also reasonable to assume that he was studying them intently, as an alternative to meeting the glowering eye of Martin Johnson, in the visitors' dressing-room at the Millennium Stadium nine days ago.
Easter's performance in the abject 19-9 defeat to Wales was actually one of the brighter notes for England in a World Cup warm-up match that certainly warmed up Johnson, who spared nobody the lash of his tongue. "It was," admits Easter, "one of the more incandescent rages I've seen from him. He was even angrier after he'd done all the media stuff. It was best to keep out of his way."
The mighty Harlequins No 8 has incurred a calf injury since then and did not play in Saturday's redemptive win over Ireland in Dublin, so the setback against the Welsh will remain his last competitive Red Rose action before the World Cup opener against Argentina in Dunedin on September 10, assuming he is a) fit to play and b) picked to play. Usually, these days, b) tends to follow a) as surely as the sweet chariot swings low. Easter did not pull on the England shirt until he was 28, which might be why he has since worn it with such fierce proprietorial pride, and in match after match made himself about as indispensable as his illustrious predecessor Lawrence Dallaglio.
We meet, first, in a gleaming office building in the City of London. Easter is wearing the full England kit for a photo-shoot, but if he feels self-conscious among all the insurance executives in their sharp suits, he shows no sign. Easter is an alumnus of Dulwich College in south-east London, which also produced one other stalwart of the current England pack, Andrew Sheridan, and sundry other international rugby players, including Cyril 'Kit' Lowe MC, the First World War flying ace said to have inspired WE Johns to create Biggles. At Dulwich they like to send boys out into the world brimming with confidence, and not only on the rugby field. Moreover, while some of his current England team-mates were forging ahead with their professional playing careers, Easter was working for an investment bank in the City. Even in shorts, he looks as if he belongs.
England's training these last couple of months, he says, has been "pretty intense stuff". There was accordingly a grim and almost disbelieving post-mortem in the wake of the defeat by Wales, which could hardly have evoked less the World Cup warm-up between the two countries in 2007, when in a record 62-5 landslide at Twickenham Easter became the first No 8 to score four tries in a match for England. This time, while he thought it "a bit harsh" of the media to call England bereft of imagination and flair against the Welsh, Easter concedes that there wasn't much evidence of cohesive teamwork from players who had spent weeks in each other's company, eating, running, jumping and even wrestling together. "Yeah, it was very disappointing," he says. "The object of the exercise is to get into the other side's 22 from the half-way line and we did that fairly well, but we just didn't take our opportunities."
In his absence against Ireland in Saturday's 20-9 win, England undoubtedly did take their opportunities, making it an altogether cheerier Johnson who faced the media afterwards, and that the players had overcome the major disruption late in the day of "losing Nick" was not least of the reasons for the England manager's contentment. James Haskell slotted in so impressively at No 8 in Dublin that there are those who think he did enough to seize Easter's shirt, but nobody knows whether Johnson is among them, probably not even Johnson. He has a long aeroplane flight today to give the matter some thought.
Whatever, it's all a phoney war until the real engagement begins, not that there has been anything phoney about the long days at Pennyhill Park, England's training base near Bagshot, where the first mountain-biking session started at 7.30am and the sweating continued until 6pm. As for the wrestling, Easter admits, not altogether surprisingly, that he enjoyed it. "I'd have liked the backs to get involved, though. They did it among themselves. I wouldn't have minded taking them on, although I'd have avoided the bigger ones like Matt Banahan. That might have got a bit embarrassing. I'd have been looking for the little ones. But yeah, we had tournaments, a king of the ring, last-man standing kind of thing. It certainly gets the heart rate up. You can only stand three bouts before you're knackered."
Now less than a fortnight away is the 80-minute bout against Argentina, traditionally one of the more bruising sides in international rugby. It is tempting to say that England's performance that day will show whether they're in the kind of shape to reach the World Cup final, except that Easter was in the side humbled 36-0 by South Africa at the pool stage four years ago, when not even Nostradamus could have predicted that Martin Corry and co would make it to the tournament's last day.
"We're in a very tough group," says Easter, issuing the standard-pre World Cup mantra. "Even Georgia, Ireland only beat them by five, and we've seen many teams in the past slip up against the so-called weaker teams. What we've been doing at Pennyhill Park is making sure we're all prepared physically, and then when we get to New Zealand the mental side becomes more important. Also, the video guys will be working non-stop because it's partly about knowing your enemy, as they say, but you can get bogged down in that sort of stuff. Senior players like myself have to make sure the guys are in the right frame of mind, although even when you're at a good level emotionally, you've still got to keep a clear head."
As one of the battle-hardened veterans of 2007, he has some valuable intelligence to offer to the boys new to World Cups. "Reaching the final after that defeat by South Africa was one of the best experiences I've had in rugby," he says. "Straight after [the 36-0 drubbing], we all got together and quite a few players voiced opinions about where our faults were. We didn't really have a game plan, didn't really know how we wanted to play as an England team, and that reflected all the neglect there'd been in the years after [World Cup victory in] 2003. But we managed to play some half-decent stuff after that, and reaching the final really came down to collective will... sheer bloody-mindedness."
Nonetheless, they lost. "Yes, and much as it was an excellent experience getting there, losing was also one of my worst experiences. I think there's something wrong with you if you can put that sort of thing behind you. I can't. What you have to do is not let it eat away at you."
In the 2007 final, Easter was the second-youngest in the pack, yet as one by one the old stagers retired following that World Cup, he became one of the oldest. Now 33, the same age as Lewis Moody and Steve Thompson, he looks up substantially in age (and height) only to Simon Shaw, who is so superannuated that he made the 1995 World Cup squad, and can chew over the good old days with Johnno.
It is the next 60 or so days, however, that currently preoccupy the England manager. And Easter is confident that the squad could not be in better hands. "When he was appointed I thought he was the perfect guy, and he's been excellent, he's got stronger and stronger in the role. He is English rugby, isn't he? I know that great players don't always make great coaches, but I'd met him a few times and heard him speak, and he's a very intelligent, shrewd man, so there's a lot to feed off. He just exudes an aura, but he's not overbearing. He trusts players, but put a foot out of line and there are no second chances."
Easter is sometimes described as a rugby throwback, a man with old-school sensibilities, which is code, among other things, for the fact that he enjoys a pint or three after the match. He doesn't deny it. "I've played a lot of senior rugby in the amateur ethos, at Rosslyn Park, for my school old boys, at university, playing for Villagers in South Africa. When everyone else in a team is making sacrifices to be the best you have to keep up, but I still think that a team sport such as rugby, the nature of it, you need to celebrate that in a certain way. The social part is important, and I'm a firm believer that if you get to know each other off the pitch, you play better for each other on. It's certainly like that in the England set-up; the atmosphere's as good as I've ever known it for the simple reason that we've spent more time together. And the social side is good at Quins too." A pause, and the glimmer of a roguish smile. "You've got to have a few stories to tell, haven't you," he says, disobligingly refusing to do so.
He was such a late starter in top-level rugby that I wonder whether he ever thought it might not happen? "Not really. After I joined Harlequins and we were relegated straight back to where I'd just come from with Orrell, I suppose I thought that might scupper my plans. But [the then-Harlequins boss] Dean Richards was a massive help in promoting me. He was very forthright with the England management."
And so Easter got his chance, making his Test debut against Italy in the 2007 Six Nations barely a week after his maiden appearance for the second-string England Saxons. In fact international rugby had always been in his genes; his great-grandfather, Pieter Le Roux, was a Springbok. "Yeah, he got two caps on the 1905-06 tour to England. I never knew him, of course, but I think I've still got his old tour diary somewhere."
His sporting pedigree is not confined to the oval ball; his father, John, was a top squash player, indeed British No 1. "Yeah, he reached No 9 in the world. Jonah Barrington's my godfather." Which prompts the interesting image of Easter charging round a squash court. He smiles. "I enjoy a game. But I'm nowhere near that standard."
His parents met when his dad was in South Africa years ago playing squash, and when I ask Easter whether his South African roots are important to him, for the first and only time in our conversation he seems stuck for words.
"Erm, it depends. I don't ever support them at anything, if that's what you mean. I'm bona fide English and very proud of being English. But yeah, my mum's South African and I've still got relatives there. I lived there for a year. It's a fantastic country. But when it comes to sport I'm not bothered whether they win or lose."
Actually, that's not quite true. On an October evening in Paris four years ago he was very bothered indeed. So would the dream scenario, for him, be revenge against the Springboks on an October evening in Auckland?
"It doesn't matter," he says, "as long as we win it."
Nick Easter is an ambassador for QBE, Official Insurance Partner of England Rugby
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