Evening Standard

A career in rugby union can seriously damage your health. Week after week, man-mountains collide in a sport where the average career is getting shorter and shorter — 77 games according to the latest statistics. And yet the danger money on offer for participation at the top level of the game pales in comparison to the round ball.

Wayne Rooney now earns more in a month than the highest-paid rugby union stars do in a year; All Black Dan Carter, Australia’s Matt Giteau and Sebastien Chabal at Racing Metro are all on just under £1million.

Contented: Rugby is better off without vast sums of money, says Nick Easter. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

True, rugby has only been professional for 15 years but the contrast could not be starker. Even cricket has had its head turned by the enormous sums on offer in the Indian Premier League and the one-off Allen Stanford match that made 11 players millionaires.

Surprisingly, none of these sums earned by his sporting counterparts makes Harlequins star Nick Easter in any way jealous. Rugby, you sense after talking to Easter, is better off without it. “Look, we are part of the two or three per cent doing something we really love and earning quite well out of it,” he says.

“You suddenly see the IPL cricketers earning £500,000 or so for seven weeks’ work and you think, Do we need some shortened version of rugby?’ Or that Allen Stanford one-off cricket game — one million dollars for each member of the winning team. Can you imagine that in rugby? You would get people running straight out and absolutely smashing each other.”

The former Dulwich College school boy, who cheerfully acknowledges that his background is very middle-class, worked in the City for six months before he joined Quins.

He was also late starter on the international scene and is glad that he did not make his first England appearance until 2007 — when he was 28 years old — in the Six Nations win against Italy.

“My head might have been turned had I been 17,” he admits. “But by the time I pulled on the England shirt, I had been to university and done a gap year teaching in South Africa in 2000 — the year of the Hansie Cronje cricket corruption scandal.

“Some players get an academy contract at a club while everyone else is off to university and doing the normal thing. They go to the local pub and everyone in there is worshipping them, they are the envy of their peers and can get ideas above their station, delusions of grandeur.

“It happens more so in football with the money they earn at such an early age. Suddenly you are a superstar and you think you can get away with things that the normal person can’t. I was quite fortunate it didn’t happen to me.”

Arguably, today’s rugby players are worth more than the £350,000-a-year average they receive. It is good money but the perilous nature of the sport is always in the background.

“There’s a real honest feeling in rugby as opposed to all the other sports that I’ve played,” adds the 32-year-old. “Rugby is like going to war without the weapons, like trench warfare a lot of the time.

“But you are only one training session away from the end of your career.”

The professional era has changed much in rugby, especially at Harlequins where Easter has spent the past six years of his career.

“Quins used to change a lot of coaches,” he says. “They had a lot marquee players who would turn out for the odd big game. There was a lot of talent and they would win the odd cup but there wasn’t as much substance as there should have been. Deep down their values weren’t in the right place and they were playing, probably, for more selfish reasons.

“The current Harlequins team certainly does have that team ethos.”

This has come about, explains Easter, through team building which has included taking the squad to Ashridge, the business school in Berkhamsted.

“We didn’t know where we were going,” he explains. “But once there everything became clear.

“We were split into groups discussing what sort of behaviour you expect from the team, what core values’ you want to instil. How that’s going to apply to how you train and achieve results on the pitch?”

Bloodgate is a taboo subject for Easter and, so far this season, Quins record is mixed.

After a draw against Wasps in their first match, the Twickenham club lost their next two Premiership games before thrashing new boys Exeter for their first win of the campaign.

A win over Newcastle before the European break was followed by Saturday’s defeat at Gloucester, leaving Quins in mid-table. They will host Bath on Sunday before attention switches to England, the autumn internationals and the All Blacks.

There is now less than a year to go to the opening of the 2011 World Cup for which the hosts, New Zealand, will start as favourites.

That makes the 6 November match against the All Blacks at Twickenham all the more mouthwatering.

“It will be the last time we will play the southern hemisphere teams before the World Cup,” Easter says. “So you’ve got to lay down a marker to them and, more importantly, to yourself. You have got to believe that you can beat them.

“At the moment we are behind. The southern hemisphere are setting the bar and New Zealand are the number one side. Australia and South Africa are probably second. In the Tri-Nations Series, they used the new interpretations of the laws to show how the game should be played. The standard of rugby was at times breathtaking.”

Easter should start all four matches in November against the All Blacks followed by Australia, Samoa and South Africa at his favoured No8 position.

England’s narrow win in the Second Test in Sydney back in June — the first in Australia since the World Cup win in 2003 — gives him hope of achieving a positive result.

“That was more than a single swallow in the summer,” he insists. “There have been plenty of one-offs but this one wasn’t. There were a few guys playing their third or fourth game and suddenly they showed a lot more confidence within the system and structure we are playing.”

And, while Easter accepts that Martin Johnson’s record is no better than two of his predecessors, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton, when they got the sack — he is totally convinced that the current team manager is headed in the right direction.

“He has kept continuity and faith with the coaching staff and players alike,” add Easter. “Yes, he changed his captain, Steve Borthwick, but that was after two years, enforced through injury. Before Johnson, there was a lot of chopping and changing.

“That was probably why we achieved one good win but then did not have the right side to take it forward. Johnson knows exactly what it takes to win a Test match.”

A great captain may not become a great manager, according to Easter, but what sets Johnson apart is that he played professionally.

“A lot of the coaches played in the amateur era and they think that’s how things should be done now without understanding the professional era. Martin Johnson played in both eras and understands both sides.

“Johnson also played in the boiler room in the second row. He is not a one-off natural genius who can’t transfer his skills to someone else. He was also at a club, Leicester, who believe in team ethos. That’s why they have been so consistently dominant, in English rugby.

“Johnno has more job security. Brian [Ashton] was probably under a little bit more day-to-day pressure and wasn’t allowed to have the longer-term focus. Johnno not only looks longer term but he does not do the hands-on coaching stuff, instead he oversees the coaching staff.”

At 32 Easter still believes he has a lot to offer, especially to England.

“I can always improve as a player,” he says. “I am a better player now than I have ever have been. As a winger or a fly-half, you lose your speed. So that part of the game is not going to improve but your controlling of the game can improve and you can still add value.

“I shall play as long as I feel I am improving and have the fire in my belly. But if I turn up for training and go — actually, why am I doing this? — then I will retire. Before that I want to achieve something tangible and of substance with Harlequins because we haven’t had a history of winning. We have won the cup a few times and the European Challenge Cup but not the Premiership.

“And I want to win the World Cup. We want to be the number one side in the world. You have got to work to achieve that but, with the resources and players available, there is no real excuse for not doing it.”

And while Easter admits that only a “half a dozen” of the present England side would make the All Blacks team, winning in New Zealand next year is a realistic goal.

“In the 2007 World Cup everybody was expecting England not to get anywhere and they got to the final,” he says. “We will be more prepared than we were last time. I would not be playing unless

I thought we could win.”

And if England repeat their 2003 triumph next year, then Easter wants the lessons to be learned.

“It certainly looks like we took the wrong road after 2003,” he argues. “Rugby had a massive take-off after Jonny Wilkinson kicked that goal. But, ultimately, you’ve got to be winning for the interest to remain and for those role models to continue so the youngsters want to be the next Wilkinson or Martin Johnson . . . ”

He does not quite finish the sentence but the unspoken thought is that a victory in 2011 could mean Nick Easter joins that pantheon as well.

Nick Easter is an Ambassador for Premiership Rugby’s Official Business Insurance Partner, QBE.


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