“Nick Easter should play for England.”
That is what Conor O’Shea said after watching his side beat Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, in a performance full of conviction and glorious intent that will have unnerved those wishing to wrestle the Premiership crown from Harlequins next May.
His statement of support was more than just an open letter to the attending Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree. Nick Easter had another exceptional game that was the latest in a line of strong performances from the back of a Quins pack that has impressed in all four league outings so far this season.
Easter played an important part in the build up to the game’s only try and epitomises what makes Harlequins so good at the moment. Hard and direct running lines flood the channels with a quick offloading game that simply eliminates defenders from the game. By keeping the ball off the floor and getting over the gain line several times in succession, even if just by half a metre, it nullifies the opposition’s back row and doesn’t give the defence time to settle.
This style of play is what England need to be playing in 2015 to even consider taking back the Webb Ellis Trophy. The modern forward needs to be more than a scrummager/jumper. A consummate back row player could be given a run out at inside centre and shouldn’t look out of place.
England are gradually moving away from the stereotypical style of scrummage-and-kick-to-victory but they are a young side and still developing. No one is expecting the 34-year-old Easter to still be around in 2015, barring some Simon Shaw-esque longevity, but sometimes you need to bring an old head in.
When Lancaster took over, everyone knew that he was selecting players for the next Rugby World Cup and Easter was one of the victims of the cut. Reports of saying “that’s £35,000 down the drain” after England were knocked out of the 2011 Rugby World Cup deepened the wound and increased the distance back to an England squad at the time fraught with a poor public image.
A relatively quiet period and a strict hand regarding Danny Care has rebuilt confidence in the national side and the England team has moved on. Defeat in South Africa was made more palatable by a strong work ethic and never-say-die attitude. But the current incumbents of the England No. 8 jersey haven’t quite met expectations.
Ben Morgan of Gloucester wasn’t caught in the headlights but he didn’t raise his game to meet the ferocious bombardment of the South African forwards that was several steps up from what he faced in the Six Nations earlier this year.
This allowed Thomas Waldrom to at last make his debut. The Leicester Tigers man is nicknamed ‘Tank’ and it is quite apt given how he plays. But he is typical of a Leicester side that were nullified by Harlequins at the weekend and shamed in comparison of their loose play. Time and again Leicester forwards clattered the ball into contact, found the floor and the fight in the ruck ensued. Meanwhile Easter, Robshaw and the Quins pack offloaded constantly and kept Leicester at arms length for the 80 minutes. Leicester weren’t bad by any stretch and are likely to be in the Final once again, but it was just that Harlequins were another level beyond them.
Jordan Crane was actually wearing the 8 shirt for Leicester that day, a talented Englishman in his own right, but he struggled in comparison to Easter. With a greying beard, the Quins man knows his strengths and weaknesses now. A key part of the 8,9 10 axis, he’s never going to romp down the field like Pierre Spies but he is incredibly effective at taking the ball with momentum into the defence and using his Fairy Liquid soft hands to ship the ball on.
Lancaster favourite Phil Dowson also has excellent handling skills and is an outstanding Premiership player and leader for Northampton. Yet he has still to prove himself to be a top class operator rather than a solid squad man to call on when it comes to the Red Rose. The fact it took him until 30 to make an England debut unfortunately says more bad then good.
Therefore, for the here and now, Easter is the man that should be pulling on the new Canterbury strip this autumn. Compared to his peers, he is first amongst equals at the moment and will offer a guiding hand in a side still raw when it comes to playing the best teams in the world.
Morgan seems to be the forerunner for 2015 and there is no harm in making him fight for the shirt against someone who has been there and done that. Waldrom too will be around the squad and despite being older is still new to the international scene.
If Easter does get the call from Lancaster he will be more than aware he is a short term fixture, there to galvanise not just Morgan and Waldrom, but to help those on beside him in the scrum, the Toms, Johnson and Wood, who are also making their baby steps into the international game.
Rugby is full of journeymen out for the quick buck before retiring. But you get the occasional player who galvanises the youngsters around him. Matt Burke at Newcastle Falcons and Rocky Elsom at Leinster are two that spring to mind. As long as Easter is interested for the glory and honour instead of the appearance fee and win bonus then England could do worse than given the Londoner one more go.
Let us know how you think things are going in the comments below or on Twitter either @TheRugbyBlog or to Jeff personally @BallinTouch
By Jeff Ball
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images