Back in the days when Dean Richards, the great shambling bear of English rugby, was doing his inimitable thing at Leicester, there was little common ground between the blue-collar life in the shop-floor environment of Welford Road and the comparative luxury of the Stoop, where players popped in for an hour's gentle exercise after a tough day's speculation and accumulation on the trading floor. Times may have changed, but when Nick Easter first materialised in the England set-up, they did not appear to have changed that much.
Here was a character who had dabbled in the City with a firm of investment bankers, albeit in a "tedious dogsbody's role", and spoke with the easy confidence of someone used to the close proximity of vast sums of money, if not the ownership of it. He had been to university and revelled in its attractions; played a little rugby at Rosslyn Park, that unshakeable bastion of the amateur ethos; and spent some time in South Africa, turning out for the super-swanky Villagers club in super-swanky Cape Town. Easter and Harlequins? It was difficult to imagine a better fit.
And yet. The average Leicester hard-head does not quite dismiss Quins with the contempt of old, because Richards himself now runs the show at the Stoop. And Richards likes Easter so much that it is tempting to wonder whether the former England No 8 sees something of himself in the present England No 8.
One of Richards' most reliable henchmen from the halcyon days of blood-and-thunder East Midlands rugby, John Wells, detects certain similarities between the two men.
"I see Nick as old school, for want of a better expression," said Wells, the England forwards coach, explaining why Easter had been recalled to the back row for tomorrow's Six Nations match with Italy, almost sight unseen. "We know he hasn't played since late December, but he's the sort who can do no training at all, yet still go out on the pitch and do pretty much everything people would expect of him. There is an issue with his fitness, clearly, but he comes from the same stable as Dean, who wasn't renowned for overdoing it with the training, but pulled out man-of-the-match performances week after week."
How England could do with a performance of such magnitude from Easter tomorrow. No one suggests that he is the "new Richards" – if they did, neither man would ever live it down – but on a good day, there are flashes of the old maestro in some of his work. One such good day was at Worcester just after Christmas, when Quins won a match for the first time in ages. The weather was grim, the home forwards were vast and the rugby was of the trench-warfare variety. Easter was an absolute rock, carrying the ball into the eye of the storm, standing tall in the tackle, smashing opponents backwards with all-enveloping tackles and mauling like a man possessed. Unfortunately, he did not quite last the game, thanks to the latest in a long line of knee ligament problems. "I've done my left medial three times now, and my right one twice," he said this week, his tone a mix of mild exasperation and weary acceptance. "It's the price you pay in today's rugby, I think. So much emphasis is placed on players staying on their feet in the tackle, and if you get hit by two or three opponents and your knee twists – well, something's going to give.
"Still, I don't see it as a problem, coming back into the side without a run of matches. I'd have preferred some game time but, to be honest with you, I'm ready to burst. There's a lot of aggression pent up inside me and I feel ready to play. In a sense, it's a little like making the side for the first time. I've been picked to do the things I'm good at doing, so I'll go out there and do them. I'll enjoy it, too. I always enjoy my rugby."
Easter sees things just a little differently from most of his peers. This could have something to do with the fact that he came late to the professional ranks – not for him the treadmill of age-group rugby, academy rugby, 365-days-a-year rugby – and did not make his England debut until 28. All that real-life experience, studying maths at college, and earning a week's wages, allowed him to put his sudden elevation to the elite ranks in its proper perspective, and keep it there.
He does not, for instance, look back on his first international – against Italy, strangely enough, almost exactly a year ago – as the "most nerve-shredding" of his time at the top level. Neither does he single out any of the do-or-die matches in last autumn's World Cup, during which he hammered a series of very long nails into the coffin containing the remains of Lawrence Dallaglio's Test career. His choice? The 60-point cakewalk against Wales at Twickenham last August that yielded him a personal haul of four tries. "That was a day I really felt some pressure," he said. "The Six Nations earlier in the year had been new and exciting, and I absolutely loved the subsequent tour of South Africa, even though we took two pannings.
"I knew what we were in for, going there with a weakened squad, but I felt we played some good stuff despite the fact that Bryan Habana ran 70 metres to score every time we turned the ball over.
"No, the one that really got to me was the Wales game, because to a large extent World Cup selection was riding on it, and there were a fair few back-rowers chasing places.
"I had no experience of that kind of situation, and it was tough to handle."
Handle it he did, of course. The lasting image of the game was the expression on Dallaglio's lantern-jawed visage as, from his seat on the replacements' bench, he watched this Johnny-come-lately of a No 8 rival claiming his fourth and final try of the contest. There was the hint of a smile, but then, condemned men have been known to smile on their way to the gallows. The former captain knew there and then that he had a fight on his hands for World Cup preferment – a fight he would lose, comprehensively, on the rugby fields of France during the weeks that followed.
There is no gloating from the Harlequin, despite widespread whisperings that the rivalry between the two was unusually bitter. "When you go up against people like Lawrence or Martin Corry for a place in the England team, you know you're going to be pushed a long way, and that's what happened at the World Cup," he said. "But you can't afford to think of these things in personal terms. I didn't then, when I was in there scrapping with such big names, and I don't now they've gone. Other people are after the position now. It won't get any easier."
Last Saturday, he watched the England pratfall at Twickenham from the comparatively safe distance of the Harlequins club ground. "I had my head in my hands," he admitted. "We saw the real England in that first 60 minutes – an England that will only improve, because we're strong in all areas of the side. But that defeat was hard to take. You don't like to lose, especially to the Welsh, and it seemed to me we became just a little complacent in that final quarter and dropped off the pace. Mind you, it's dead easy for me to say that. I was sitting in a chair, watching the thing unfold and taking the sensible view. When you're out there in the heat of battle, the sensible view is not so easy to come by."
A year ago, Easter said he was determined to extract every last drop of value from his rugby career while doing everything in his power to avoid becoming a "robot". He has been true to his word. He works harder in the weights room, drinks less beer, listens to the best dietary advice and occasionally even acts upon it. And having done all that in the name of optimum physical preparation, he then pops down to Dulwich to coach Old Alleynians, the junior club that gave him an early leg-up in the game.
"I do a little coaching there, but it benefits me more than it does them," he said. "When I see the commitment those people put in – people who are decent rugby players who do what they do purely for the love of the game, training a couple of times a week after a day's work – it brings me right back down to earth and reminds me of the old amateur spirit. It's refreshing to be part of that scene."
The scene at Stadio Flaminio will be entirely different, but Easter is feeling lucky. He enjoys his darts, and recently played a game against the former world champion Bobby George, who owns more gold jewellery than the Queen of Sheba and appears to wear all of it. "I lost, of course," said the Harlequin, "but I didn't do too badly, because I kept hitting double top by mistake. It doesn't half help your score along."
Forty points from errors? In their present position, England would settle for that tomorrow.Reuse content