As someone who is half South African and spent time there as a player, Nick Easter already had a good understanding of how the country lived and breathed rugby before he started coaching in Super Rugby
But two years with the Natal-based Sharks as forwards and defence coach, before he returned to the UK to join the Newcastle Falcons backroom team, only served to reaffirm that anything to do with an oval ball was first and foremost in everyone’s minds.
“I was also actually quite astonished by how much they knew about Premiership rugby, European rugby, players in the Premiership who weren’t necessarily internationals,” he said.
“They’ve got 10 SuperSport channels or whatever, with probably about six showing rugby at any one time. They show club rugby, university rugby, schools rugby … any rugby.
“One of our coach’s sons was playing in the famous Paul Roos versus Grey College match and Grey’s won with a last-minute kick. He showed me the footage on his phone; there were something-like 16,000 people watching the game and there was a mass pitch invasion at the end. It was incredible.
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A big deal
At Sharks, Easter coached current Springbok stars like Rugby World Cup 2019 heroes Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am in Super Rugby – a competition he could have graced himself as a player.
“I played for Villagers (in Cape Town) a year before I went professional with Orrell (in 2001) and I had a couple of games for Western Province A. They wanted to sign me up but, for some reason, I chose to come home,” he explained.
“Having played and made friends there and then coached there, I understand what rugby means to South Africans and their approach to the game.
“It is very much as you see it, there is no hidden secret. It is a case of we are big, aggressive blokes and we are hitting you hard.
“There is a big farming background to the front-five forwards, who are naturally very big blokes, who have big hands, big wrists and big elbows, and proper strength not gym strength.
“The way they play means no quarter given,” he added.
“Even their fly halves seem to be traditionally pretty physical and can boot the ball a mile, probably at the expense of the jinkier fly-half who can beat men with their feet but are more fallible under pressure.
“But now I think they have got a balance to their back line in terms of bringing in fleet-footed players like Cheslin Kolbe, Mapimpi, Am and Willie le Roux. You now have the rapier and the bludgeon.
“When they won the World Cup, I was obviously gutted from England's point of view but also quite proud that players I coached had achieved their dream.”
As well as a big physique, Easter says South African rugby players are big on emotion – something that can work for and against them.
“They are quite reliant on being emotionally charged before a game.
“If you match the emotional intensity and clarity of thought together with the athlete, then rugby is the game for them.
“You could see that in the World Cup final with the way they defended in the last 10-20 mins of the first half.
“I remember one Super Rugby season we (the Sharks) were on a win-lose-win-lose cycle and because it is quite a short season, every match counts.
“The media were on our backs and it was quite pressurised and we had to go to Ellis Park, to play the Lions, who’d been to the final for the last three years.
“Joel Stransky was a pundit for the game and he came down to speak to us coaches and asked us what we thought and, to a man, we said ‘we don’t think it’ll be a contest’.
“The Beast was set to break the Super Rugby record for appearances (157) and the boys were really up for it.
“Every bit of info we gave them in the week, they took on board. They trained well, the leaders led as they should and things took care of themselves.
“We won 42-5. The boys were just sensational.”
As the son of a South African-born mother, Easter was eligible to be a Springbok until he nailed his colours to England’s mast.
Instead of wearing green and gold, Easter pulled on the white England jersey 54 times and faced the Springboks on six occasions, including in the final of Rugby World Cup 2007.
Easter never got to experience what it meant to be a British and Irish Lion, though, missing out on the tour to South Africa in 2009.
“I heard I was there or thereabouts from a few people but they only wanted to take two eights and they took Jamie Heaslip and Andy Powell. I was gutted.
“I’d have loved to have gone on that tour because, from what I understand, it was a great experience and they brought back what the Lions tour was really about.”
Unfortunately, the current tour won’t feature the usual sea of red in the stands, made up of thousands of Lions fans, as all the games are going to be played behind closed doors.
Former number eight Easter feels this will work in the Lions’ favour simply because they are more used to playing in such circumstances and generating their own energy.
“South Africa’s players have played with no fans but at Currie Cup sort of level, whereas our guys have been used to playing in Six Nations games, Heineken Cup knockout games, and big finals. They have played high level stakes rugby with no fans.
“Also with not having played since the World Cup, I think South Africa will struggle to get the cohesion they need in the two games against Georgia.
“I think the odds are stacked against South Africa far more than the Lions.