When Chris Ashton crossed for his fourth try on Saturday he became one of only 12 players to have scored four or more tries in an international match for England. The last person to have achieved this feat? Nick Easter.
The very same Nick Easter who continues to divide opinion amongst English rugby fans, even as the English pack displays the sort of skill, power and dynamism arguably not seen in an England team since those halcyon days prior to the 2003 World Cup. Yet despite this, Easter continues to be seen by some as a hindrance, a cumbersome stop-gap filling in until a better option arrives on the scene.
So where do the issues arise?
Since making his debut for England in the 2007 Six Nations against Italy, Easter has quietly established himself as a key member of the English side. Playing an important part in the England World Cup team that finished as runners up, Easter has gone on to firmly establish himself as the national team’s number 8 and was seen by many as the natural replacement as captain for Lewis Moody after injury struck. Martin Johnson instead turned to his old team mate Mike Tindall; however Easter’s presence as one of the team’s great leaders has never been in doubt.
With athleticism that belies his size, Easter has become a trusted jumper in both kick-off returns and the lineout, and his handling skills as well as his ability to offload – shown beautifully in Mike Tindall’s try against Italy – allows him to provide the link between forwards and backs that England’s current game craves. Frequently standing at first receiver, Easter allows Flood to receive the ball wider, providing him with a greater opportunity of providing width or, alternatively, an extra few seconds with which to kick.
He’s regularly on hand to fill in at scrum half or cover back for a kick over the top when England have been faced with trouble, and Easter seems to have an almost innate ability to sense danger; a quality that has been obvious throughout his career. His strong work at the breakdown has led to him topping the turnover count against both Wales and Italy, ably assisting his two young back row team mates on either flank.
Easter did not reach the professional level through the now customary academy route. Taking in the sights of Rosslyn Park and Orrell before first playing in the Premiership, many argue that Easter still retains an almost “amateurish” look about him. It could be said that compared to his contemporaries, he may not have the pace of Tom Guest, the power of Jordan Crane nor the physique of James Haskell – and perhaps England would ideally want a number 8 possessing these qualities. But where Easter is lacking, he more than makes up for these deficiencies in other areas, more pointedly, areas where the current crop of English 8s are lacking.
Messrs Crane, Narraway, Guest and perhaps even Haskell may go on to compete for the England number 8 jersey in future, and undoubtedly the dilemma as to who plays at the back of England’s scrum will continue to rage. But whilst England and Nick Easter continue to impress, the position rightly belongs to the current incumbent from Harlequins.
By Tom James