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Easterby: It’s Time To Deliver

Easterby: It’s Time To Deliver

Set for only his second start in an Irish shirt since last year’s Triple Crown win over England, Simon Easterby is eager for Ireland to live up to their billing in 2007 and secure an elusive Six Nations title.

Easterby has edged out Ulster’s Neil Best for a place in the Irish side for Sunday’s tournament opener against Wales at the Millennium Stadium (kick-off 3pm).

The Llanelli flanker, who donned the number 6 jersey for Ireland’s final match of the Guinness Autumn Series against the Pacific Islanders, has hit form with the Scarlets over the past two months.

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Helping the Welsh region qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, Easterby scored a crucial try in their 20-19 home win over former tournament winners Toulouse.

Now focused on guiding the men in green to Six Nations glory, the 31-year-old reckons the time is right for Eddie O’Sullivan’s charges to finish top of the pile – he feels they are better equipped to deal with the tag of being favourites than in 2004 when their championship bid faltered at the first hurdle in Paris.

“There is an expectation on us now, maybe more so than there was two years ago,” admitted Easterby, who will be in opposition to a number of his club-mates in Cardiff.

“It’s time we lived up to that. We are two years more mature, two years more experienced.

“We have had some set-backs along the way in the last couple of years and hopefully we will be stronger for those experiences.”

With most of the current Irish side in their prime, competition for places is extremely high and particularly in the back row. In a World Cup year, Easterby will be keen to put down an early marker and work his way ahead of Best in the battle for the blindside berth.

Reflecting on his selection for the Welsh encounter, he said: “With the selection comes that added pressure to perform. Neil will probably feel pretty hard done by. He performed particularly well the last time he played in an Irish jersey (against Australia in November).

“But competition for places is better than ever. You have got to improve and keep the standards high. We are pushing each other.

“I’m just glad I have got the nod this time and I will be looking to justify my selection at the weekend.”

One of the reasons Easterby was picked to start against Wales is his inside knowledge of the Welsh team and management, with his former Llanelli coach Gareth Jenkins now in the hot seat with the WRU.

Dubbing Jenkins “an intelligent rugby thinker” and a coach who “gets his players on the edge,” Easterby is anticipating a real battle between the front fives on Sunday, especially after the provinces faltered in that area in round six of the Heineken Cup’s pool stages.

Asked if Wales would target Ireland’s front five, Easterby insisted: “You would expect nothing different from a forward pack coached by Gareth Jenkins. They may look at what went on the Heineken Cup when Leicester went to Thomond Park and maybe out-muscled some of the Munster players.

“But that is certainly fresh in the minds of the players who were involved that weekend. Six of the Ireland pack are from Munster and they want to produce a huge performance to put that right.

“It doesn’t get much tougher, having to go and play first up in Cardiff. We have got to physically try and dominate the Welsh and if we can dominate them up front, I think our backs are as good as anyone’s in the world.”