Llanelli's new son - an Irish Englishman

Simon Easterby's roots are tangled, but he has no doubts where his heart lies.
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The Independent Online

On the surface it's a case for the eligibility police: an Englishman who plays his club rugby in Wales and represents Ireland. As if that wasn't suspicious enough, he shares a house with a New Zealander who plays for Wales. If you want to play spot the accent, drop in on Simon Easterby and Matt Cardey.

Since sharing a roof over their heads and teaming up with Llanelli, both have made the breakthrough into international rugby, Easterby with Ireland, Cardey with Wales and next weekend, the odd couple will be on opposite sides at Lansdowne Road. "It's a pretty weird situation," Easterby admitted. "It adds a bit more spice to things - not that it needs it."

Easterby is possibly unique enough to warrant an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. He was promoted to the Ireland senior team last month and has made three appearances, coinciding with three improbable victories, the latest a stunning triumph over France last Sunday. It was Ireland's first win in Paris since 1972. "It's all gone unbelievably well so far," Easterby, who wasn't born until 1976, said. "It took a long time for everything to sink in. I think I'm still on a high."

No wonder. The 24-year-old flanker's ambition this season was to make Ireland A. This he duly did, playing against England A at Northampton. The following day, when England put 50 points on Ireland in the Six Nations, Easterby watched the match in a pub in Cardiff. Warren Gatland, the Ireland coach, had no option but to make changes. In the light of what has happened since, the mystery is why he didn't make those changes sooner. "All of a sudden I was called into the squad against Scotland, but I was one of five back-rowforwards and I thought I'd lose out," Easterby said.

He made his debut at Lansdowne Road, forming a new back row with Anthony Foley and Kieron Dawson, and Ireland won 44-22. "It was an amazing experience. We had nothing to lose but I knew I could do a lot better."

And he did, when Italy visited Dublin and conceded 60 points. Last weekend, the new-look Ireland continued theirrenaissance in Paris, winning 27-25. "What can I say? Brian O'Driscoll had an exceptional day and the rest of us chipped in. Overall though it was a wonderful team performance."

The Easterby name is more familiar in the Sport of Kings. He was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire where his father, Henry, a one-time centre for Headingley, also had a stud farm. His grandfather, Walter, was a racehorse trainer and the family name has been perpetuated by the success of Peter and Mick.

It is not a dynasty that seems to do things by half. Simon's 29-year-old brother, Guy, form-erly a scrum-half with Rotherham and London Scottish, has been on the Ireland bench for the last three games. Guy is also based in Wales, playing for Ebbw Vale, and he and Simon made their league debuts against each other. Creepy. "I did tackle him once or twice but we didn't do anything too bad to each other," Simon said.

The Easterbys qualify for Ireland on the grounds that their mother, Katherine, who played hockey for Ireland, comes from Blackrock, near Dublin. The brothers started playing rugby at Ampleforth, Simon progressing to Leeds via Harrogate and Sydney University. While at Harrogate he played for Ireland Under-21s. "I was in the Irish system," he said. "Playing for England was never an issue with me."

He spent two years at Leeds, working with the former Wales and Llanelli No 8 Phil Davies. "I was told by the Irish selectors that I was not going to be picked unless I played a higher standard of rugby. I learned a lot at Leeds but I had to get some recognition."

It came when Llanelli recruited him last summer. "When Scott Quinnell played in the World Cup I got a chance early on to establish myself. Playing against Ulster in the European Cup also helped because the Ireland selectors were present. There was a comfort zone at Leeds. Not here. One of the biggest differences is that Leeds is a rugby league town. In Llanelli there's only one game and they're passionate about it. The people here expect you to win. They're also interested in what you're up to. I hadn't experienced that before. Another novelty is that I'm asked to sign autographs."

The hardest thing for Easterby is his connection with horse racing and the assumption that he has a hot line to priceless information. "The Irish squad and the boys of Llanelli are always asking me for tips. I get a few but I try not to give them too many. They don't always come in. If they do, I'm their friend for the week."

So, what price Ireland to beat Wales, a two-horse race in which Easterby has more than a little inside knowledge? Not only does he know what Cardey, the Wales full-back, has for breakfast, but is close to the Wales half-backs, Rupert Moon and Stephen Jones.

"This is one game I really wanted to play in," Easterby said. "I think the boys at Llan-elli would like to see me do well just so long as Wales win. Whatever happens I'm going to get a bit of stick."

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