Versatile O’Brien holds the key to Irish hopes, says Easterby

Picture: John Giles/PA
Picture: John Giles/PA
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The home build-up may have focused on England, but Guy Easterby, an Irishman who played for much of his career in Yorkshire, tells Nick Westby that Ireland are not to be underestimated.

STOP Sean O’Brien and you prevent Ireland creating match-dominating forward momentum – so says Guy Easterby, a man not comfortable with giving advice to England.

Easterby’s beloved Irish host England in the Six Nations finale in Dublin today and although the title may be out of reach for the hosts, denting the Red Rose’s grand slam ambitions is incentive enough.

Easterby – who was born in Tadcaster and played for Rotherham, Harrogate and Otley in a career rewarded with 28 caps for Ireland – believes if England are to have any chance of winning today and sealing a first clean sweep for eight years, shutting down Leinster’s powerful back-row is a must.

The 24-year-old flanker has been the star of an inconsistent campaign for Declan Kidney’s men, and is one of only two Ireland players shortlisted for the Six Nations player-of-the-tournament award.

O’Brien has shown his versatility by playing at No 8 and blindside flanker, and Easterby said: “Sean O’Brien is growing into the championship, and for me he’s been massive for Ireland.

“His ball-carrying ability is excellent. He did well against Wales, maybe not so in terms of 50-yard runs but he covered a lot of hard yards.

“I’m hoping England can’t stop him – he’s a superb player and brings a lot of go-forward to the team.

“He can play every position in that back row, as he has shown with how quickly he has adapted to the role of No 6.

“At such a young age he’s already showing his influence in international rugby.

“Sean has got a decent head on his shoulders and won’t get rattled by any jibes in the build-up or banter on the pitch. He just goes about his role in a business-like fashion.

“He has some very neat touches and will be very destructive to England if they are not careful.”

Easterby admits to a little bias, given O’Brien plays at No 8 for a Leinster side he is the team manager of.

But he also acknowledges that the side Ireland face has threats in equal measure.

The man he pinpoints as the one Ireland need to prevent from playing has been overlooked on the player of the tournament shortlist in favour of England team-mates Toby Flood, Tom Palmer, Chris Ashton and James Haskell.

But nevertheless, scrum-half Ben Youngs is the man Easterby, pictured far right with brother Simon, feels is England’s catalyst.

“England carry threats all over but the one man for me is Ben Youngs,” he said.

“He’s been particularly impressive. He’s only young but he has the speed and he likes to play at a quick tempo.

“He is always looking for the pass, for the opening. He’s got a very good passing and kicking game. He can be very dangerous in and around the ruck. For such a young player, he’s been a revelation in this tournament.

“Players like Youngs, Ben Foden, Flood and Chris Ashton – they’re not scared to have a go. England have a very good mix of experience and youthful energy.”

Easterby was an unused replacement the last time England went into Dublin looking to put the seal on a Six Nations grand slam.

Sir Clive Wooodward’s team won 42-6 that day, but few are expecting such a one-sided outcome this time.

Only three of the 12 games in this year’s championship have been decided by more than eight points, and with another tight encounter expected, Easterby feels discipline is going to be key.

“It’s going to be particularly vital for Ireland to stay disciplined because you don’t want to keep giving Jonny Wilkinson chances to kick at goal,” said Easterby, who despite his strong allegiances to Yorkshire and England, remains unequivocal in his support of Ireland.

“England carry an 80-minute goal threat at the minute with Flood and Wilkinson.

“Wilkinson has had to adapt to a different type of game, but as he’s shown against France and Scotland in particular, he can come on and still kick the crucial kicks from the touchline and you cannot afford to keep handing him opportunities.

“Any game against England is a massive game, especially with the history of this fixture.

“Throw in the fact that England are going for the grand slam and it’s the first Test between the two sides at the Aviva Stadium gives it more of an edge.

“It’s also important for Ireland in terms of building momentum towards the World Cup.

“But as an Irishman there’s no better feeling than stopping England winning a grand slam.”