Easterby Takes Over at Scarlets

Easterby (left) playing for Ireland in 2007. (c) Eoin Mulvey.

Simon Easterby has been promoted to the position of Head Coach of the Scarlets following Nigel Davies’ move to Gloucester. The appointment marks a swift rise in the coaching ranks for the ex-Ireland flanker, who has been the Scarlets’ Defence Coach for the last two seasons. Easterby is still only 36, having retired at the end of the ’09/10 season due to a knee injury. That final playing season with the Scarlets saw the Yorkshire native in a player-coach role (helping with the forwards), so the progression into the backroom staff was natural.

Next season will see three foreign coaches in charge of the Irish provinces, so it’s encouraging to see an Irish coach being given a chance like this. Easterby’s appointment means there’ll be four Irish coaches in charge of British teams next season, with Conor O’Shea at Harlequins, Mark McCall at Saracens and Michael Bradley at Edinburgh. With our own provinces keen to bring in outside influences, it’s vital that young Irish coaches are getting these chances.

Easterby always looked like an ideal candidate to move into coaching after his playing career. Capped 65 times for Ireland, Easterby was a tough, uncompromising blindside. He always played with awareness and intelligence. His leadership was highlighted by five seasons as Scarlets captain, as well as leading the Irish team in ’05 with O’Connell and O’Driscoll out injured. The manner in which he forced his way into the ’05 Lions test team, after being a late call-up when Lawrence Dallaglio broke his ankle, showed his determination.

Rhys Priestland and George North

Easterby will be working with talented players like Rhys Priestland and George North at the Scarlets. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

The past two seasons have seen the Scarlets finish 5th in the PRO12, but importantly, their defence improved greatly in the season just finished. In the ’10/11 campaign, Easterby’s first in charge of defence, the Scarlets leaked 453 points and 43 tries. This season they reduced those figures to 373 and 30 tries.  In the Heineken Cup, ’10/11 saw Scarlets concede 24 tries and 191 points. This season, that was improved to 9 tries and 124 points. Those are distinct numerical improvements but there has been more to it than stats.

There were several fantastic defensive efforts throughout this season, with one standout being the 16-13 loss to Leinster in February. That day, Leinster needed a brilliant performance from Fergus McFadden, including a last-gasp winning penalty, to overcome a stifling Scarlets effort. The Welsh region’s ‘D’ that day had Easterby’s influence stamped all over it: sheer determination combined with intelligence. A single moment of stupidity from Phil John meant the Scarlets came away with nothing. But performances like that saw Easterby’s reputation in Wales rise.

Scarlets

The Scarlets’ defensive performance against a McFadden-led Leinster in February was impressive. (c) Ken Bohane.

The Scarlets have built a youthful-looking backroom team around Easterby. Ex-Wales winger Mark Jones will be the Backs Coach. His career has followed a similar trajectory to Easterby’s. He was the Scarlets captain in ’09/10 but was forced to retire at the same time as Easterby, also because of a knee injury. Jones went straight into the Scarlets coaching set up as Skills Coach. The 47-times capped Welsh international was part of 2008’s Grand Slam winning team and is still only 32.

36-year-old Danny Wilson joins the region to take up the role of Forwards Coach. He was with the Dragons in the same capacity last season and is the current Wales U20 Head Coach. Wilson doesn’t share his fellow coaches strong playing backgrounds, but is well regarded as a coach having worked with London Welsh , the WRU Academy and various national underage teams.

36-year-old Brad Harrington is another part the backroom set-up. The Australian had a three year spell with Leinster from ’04 to ’07 and also worked with Ireland before the ’07 World Cup. The Scarlets are expected to add another specialist Skills Coach in the coming weeks. It’s a relatively young and inexperienced group of coaches, but in many ways it mirrors the state of the Scarlets’ playing squad for next season.

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Much has been made of the weakening of the Welsh regions, with many big name players leaving for foreign shores. That is a worry for the WRU, but in a Grand Slam year, Wales continue to produce young talent. Easterby has some exciting players to work with at the Scarlets. In Tavis Knoyle, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, George North and the returning Morgan Stoddart, they have a back-line that any team would be envious of. Up front, there may be some work to do in terms of recruitment.

Having lost three second-rows in Damian Welch, Lou Reed and Dominic Day, as well as marauding No.8 Ben Morgan, Easterby will have to find some grunt to supply his backs. The likes of Josh Turnbull, Aaron Shingler and captain Matthew Rees will have to step up more consistently. Still, the Scarlets could certainly do with one or two gritty forwards to complement their talented line-breakers. There’s immediate work for Easterby to get stuck into. Best of luck Simon, Irish fans will be watching with interest!

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Photos courtesy: Sum_of_Marc, Ken Bohane.

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