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Nick Easter talks USA Rugby: 'That'll be sort of the acid test of where we lie'

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Friday Jul 5, 2024

Former England backrow Nick Easter could easily claim to be one of the busiest coaches in professional rugby.

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Fresh off leading national one side Chinnor to a dominant season which culminated in promotion to the Championship, the 45-year-old has jetted off to North America to link up with Scott Lawrence’s USA Eagles squad.

Having travelled the rugby globe as both a player and now a coach, Easter’s journey to Chinnor and the USA is one of the more unique stories in the professional game.

But just how did Easter’s journey venture down the road less travelled? “I was coaching at Premiership level with Newcastle and coming towards the end of my contract two years ago,” Easter said.

“An opportunity at Worcester came up when Steve Diamond was there.

“He’d just taken over as director of rugby, and you know Worcester, it seemed like a very good opportunity.

“Without wanting to go too heavy into it, you know it was a club that had always underachieved for the funding it’s had. Well, now we obviously know it didn’t really have the funding after I signed up there. I was there for two and a half months during pre-season. After the first three games, the club went to the wall, and I found myself out of work.”

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Now firmly on the outside looking in, Easter admits it was a challenging time that had him and his family in a state of flux.

“I was scratching around, doing a bit of TV consultancy stuff and masterclasses and helping out at Cheltenham College because we’d recently moved the family down to Cheltenham. Then a friend of mine contacted me about, you know, possibly becoming a director of rugby in the National One Club.

“I was a Premiership coach at three clubs at the time and had enjoyed a stint in Super Rugby with the Sharks, so that was where I was coaching at a performance level.

“So I took a bit of time to think about it, and then I said, ‘Okay, put me in touch with the Chairman or President there or whoever makes the decision’.”

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Exploring an option that would have previously appeared unappealing at face value, Easter wanted to do his due diligence before diving in headfirst.

“They told me what their problems were in that season; they’d won about two games out of eleven and were staring down the barrel of relegation.

“It was coming towards the end of November, so I said, ‘Look, can you send me some footage?’ I just wanted to gauge the quality of players you’ve got and whether they should or shouldn’t be at that level.”

Whilst naturally, the calibre of players available to a National One side compared to top-line Premiership clubs stand in stark contrast to one another, Easter, always a player who liked a challenge, was undaunted by the challenge being presented to him.

“Now, that didn’t deter me from wanting to do the job, to be honest, and getting my teeth back into it. But I just wanted to see with my own eyes. I signed about a week later, and from a personal point of view, it was okay.”

Delving into the specifics of what makes this role different from the ones he has previously undertaken, Easter explained that despite the challenges, the opportunity to truly put his stamp on the club has been something he has relished.

“It’s not coaching. An aspect like defence, forward attack, or whatever it might be at an elite level, but from a personal development perspective, I’m the Director of Rugby.

“You’re in charge of the whole show, you see the bigger picture, you’ve got budgets to deal with, agents to deal with, you’re the agony aunt to everyone at the club, you’re the first port of call, you’ve got to make sure the guys are happy, but you’re also in charge, so the buck stops with you.

“You’re in charge of the philosophy of play; you are heading up the culture and the environment.”

Having put pen to paper, there was no going back for Easter who faced early challenges during his tenure.

“I took over at the beginning of December 2022, and then we didn’t play a game for about five weeks. We had two iced-off home games before Christmas. Now, the Christmas period is two and a half weeks at that level as they are part-time, so everyone can have a break.

“Our first game was in February against Rosslyn Park, who were second in the league at the time at home.

“We had the new manager bounce, if you like, in football parlance.”

Despite hitting the ground running with bundles of ideas, Easter immediately recognised the challenges associated with taking on a club outside of the ultra-professional ranks of the Premiership.

“We won when we weren’t expected to win 40-10 or something like that? From then, the whole of the season was about ‘right, let’s realise our potential, set certain standards in training in terms of intensity and give the players the sort of professional detail and the technical and tactical information they hadn’t had in the past.

“At the same time, I understood they weren’t full-time, so we’re going to have some fun along the way.

“You’ve got to create a happy and fun work environment, and we had the building blocks, so we ended up winning 11 out of the last 15, and we finished mid-table, so it was job done in terms of avoiding relegation.”

Nailing the key objective of avoiding relegation during a short and intense spell with the club, Chinnor were naturally keen to keep their man. Not short of options following his successful run with the club, Easter made the decision that felt most natural to him.

“Then it was about whether I re-signed for the following year, and there were a couple of offers that came through from Premiership and URC (United Rugby Championship) sides.

“But the were really keen players on board who wanted me to stay for a full year, and you know if, and I’ve been around long enough to realise that whilst it might not be at the elite level when you’re really valued and really wanted, you do feel quite special and it’s something not to turn down as opposed to, you know, trying to force your way in somewhere.

“Then it was down to a summer of recruitment, what I’d learnt in the four or five months in National one because it was new territory for me, certainly from a management side and making sure we had the appropriate depth in certain areas and relationships with clubs that could possibly dual-register or loan players.”

Deep into his off-season preparations, with his sole focus on Chinnor, Easter received a leftfield call that would see him return to the ranks of the professional game.

“The other side of it as well is that, around March last year, the USA changed their coaching staff and got Scott Lawrence in as interim head coach.

“He was looking for someone to do the forwards and defence. I had the interview and got the job.”

As someone who knows how to burst open a defence having once scored four tries against Wales in a Rugby World Cup warm-up, Easter has gone from poacher to game keeper with the USA squad as he looks to make their defence water tight.

First up for the Eagles is a match against 2023 Rugby World Cup participants Romania in what will be a true test in just how far Easter’s forward pack has come since their last outing against Spain last November. Balancing the upcoming international challenges with his commitments with Chinnor is yet another learning experience that Easter is taking in his stride.

“The US comes along now, now the season’s finished, but from Chinnor’s point of view, we’re preparing for the Championship.

“I’ve still got recruitment to do, and I love being busy. It’s not a problem, and the US is very busy now, leading up to the July series and there’s this new Pacific Nations Cup, which takes me away from Chinnor’s pre-season, but I’ll be there for enough weeks, and I’ve got a good coaching staff and we’ve got fantastic senior players – they did it last year without me.”

Employing the concept that distance makes the heart grow fonder, Easter is confident that his dual commitments will only benefit both of his teams.

“You can see it as a disadvantage, but I see it as an advantage. It’s like, well, if I’m learning and interacting and getting international level experience with other coaches, I come back, and that sort of new information, learning, knowledge, a way of doing things can be imparted on Chinnor Rugby Club, aligned with the fact that they haven’t heard my voice for five weeks, which is probably a good thing!

“I want people to take ownership, responsibility; it’s a big factor of why I think we’ve been successful this year because it was a big building block I wanted to put in for the back half of last season.

“We had some torrid times and some losses where it wasn’t working, but we had to work out ways and mechanisms to make it work, and you know there’s a lot of games, with 20 minutes to go, we’ve probably been losing, or the opposition are still in there, and we’ve managed to pull away due to the sort of decision-making and calm, composure and execution of the senior players driving those around them.

“From the USA’s point of view, I think it’s a positive for them because I’m coaching day to day throughout the year. Most international coaches have to wait for these pockets of time, they wait for these meets or campaigns, and then they want to get all their coaching stuff out that they’ve been planning this session, this meeting, all that sort of stuff, whereas they’ve probably been a bit frustrated not managing to get it on the paddock or maybe doing bits and bobs here at a school or a club or something. Put it this way: I’m not gathering any moss. The hamster wheel keeps turning.”

Confirming his commitment to the 2031 Rugby World Cup hosts, Easter has signed on the dotted line to remain with Scott Lawrence’s coaching ticket for the foreseeable future.

“I’ll be working with him for another two years, and we’ve got an exciting summer coming up. We’ve got Romania, then Scotland at home, and then there’s a three-week break, and then we’ve got this new Pacific Nations Cup, which will tell us exactly where we are because we’re playing the likes of Fiji and Japan. We know how well they’ve done in the last few World Cups so that’ll be sort of the acid test of where we lie and what we need to do from a USA point of view.”

Discussing the challenges that Chinnor will face when they take the step up to the Championship next season, Easter is realistic about the club’s ambitions.

“In a game where winning collisions and athleticism is becoming more and more important it’s only going to become more difficult.

“So, we’re going to have to be smart in terms of how we select, how we pick and choose games, certainly early on.

“It’s a level up (in terms of playing ability), and we know that but also, you know, the strength and conditioning. We know full-time sides are pretty equal, so what sort of goals can we set ourselves from that point of view?

“Can we try to be the fittest part-timers? It’s quite difficult when some of the clubs import eight or nine players from a Premiership side.

“But you can only do your best, and we’ve got to try and maximise the coaching time we have, whether that’s on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, that’s where we’ve got to be smart, and also be smart in terms of keeping the guys mentally fresh because that’s the most important thing for me.”

Summing up what he has learnt since hanging up his boots and taking his seat in the coaches’ box, Easter offered a philosophical summation of his views on the art of coaching.

“I came back to your question before: What have I learned most? Well, I probably knew it anyway when I played. It was probably a frustration when I was an assistant coach, too, that sometimes we didn’t get it right from the top. There is no need to tick every single box every week in terms of ‘let’s run through this play, let’s run through that, or, you know, ‘we’ve got to cover this’. If the guys are mentally fresh, hungry, and have the desire to play the game rather than feeling drained, it doesn’t matter what prep you’ve done; you’ll get more output from them.”

The world, according to ‘Minty’ is an upbeat one, and at club and international level, Chinnor and the Eagles are lucky to have one of the game’s most popular characters, who is turning into a coach of some repute.

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