Simon Easterby didn’t expect the call.
He had no idea John Plumtree was standing down as Ireland’s forward’s coach after just the one season but then Joe Schmidt rang from Argentina where the side was touring last summer and offered the Scarlets head coach the gig.
Though taken off guard, he didn’t need convincing.
The only complication was his existing contract with the Welsh club, but Easterby stayed on at Parc Y Scarlets long enough for his replacement Wayne Pivac to run the jetlag from Auckland out of his system.
The move was, he admits, borne of a mix of ambition and passion. Capped 65 times for Ireland, this was a chance to reconnect with that side of his story while stepping up to Test level and working alongside a man with Schmidt’s chops.
He wasn’t the only one taken by surprise. The lack of lines on his coaching CV were noted yesterday as he met the Irish media corps for the first time whilst wearing his new hat, but Schmidt’s calls have invariably been canny thus far and Easterby feels ready.
He spoke about the fluidity of life as a sports coach and how opportunities that arise need to be grasped, while leaning on Warren Gatland’s coaching staff with the Welsh national team as proof that his path here is not so unusual.
“You look at Rob Howley, he’s hardly ever coached (a club team),” he explained. “Robin McBryde has hardly ever coached a club team. He’s gone straight into international coaching from being a player.
“The English set-up is quite similar with Andy Farrell who did a bit of time with Saracens. I don’t know. It’s what works out for the individual. I have done six years as a club coach, whether it be head or assistant. If I didn’t feel I could come in here and respond positively, bring value to the environment or I thought it wasn’t the right time, I wouldn’t have taken the job. That would have been stupid for me.”
Plumtree only lasted a season but the impression he made was lasting. He challenged the pack to attain world-class status from day one and was rewarded abundantly, particularly in the lineout and with the maul.
Easterby now finds himself taking over with just a year to go to the World Cup and, more immediately, with nine of the 15 players declared unavailable for next month being forwards and Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien prominent among them.
No wonder, then, that he spoke about tweaks being the order of the day rather than wholesale change and he stressed more than once the role of the senior players in driving the culture and taking ownership of their area of operations.
Until this week, his only hands-on experience with them has been two mini-camps. Time, as it always is at Test level, is at a premium and new coaches will simply have to play catch-up. As will new players.
First up for all of them is Saturday week’s visit to Dublin of a South African side fresh off its defeat of the All Blacks and, while talk of victory will be paramount, there was an admittance yesterday that building strength in depth will also be part of the brief.
That’s not something Ireland have traditionally done well though Schmidt has begun to rectify that in his short time in charge thus far and Easterby knows from experience how suddenly doors can open.
In the summer of 2003 he was a squaddie struggling to get his game with Ireland until a summer tour that saw the majority of regulars excused from the legs to Tonga and Samoa after a Test in Australia and that gained him a foothold in the first XV.
“For us it was great because we were on the fringes and we had that opportunity to build some performances and that catapulted a few of us back into the selection again for the upcoming Six Nations. This period is no different.
“The Argentina (summer) series was about giving some guys an opportunity to progress and stake a claim and, again, this series will allow some players who are maybe on those fringes to step up.
“If we can build some more depth in each position we’re going to be in a far stronger place down the line. And win at the same time.”
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