Eales finds loss a shock

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The Independent Online
John Eales has never been prone to overstatement. Australia's impressive captain, indeed, picks his words as meticulously as he plucks out a seemingly endless supply of line-out possession against the best that the world can put up against him.

On the other hand, Eales, it should be noted, has rarely been rendered speechless. But the numbing impact of two desperately harsh defeats in the inaugural Tri-Nations tournament inside a gruelling week of Test rugby came close to silencing the man who is arguably world's finest lock forward.

It had been bad enough when an injury-time Frank Bunce try had given New Zealand's All Blacks a remarkable come-from-behind 32-25 win in Brisbane a fortnight ago.

Seven days later in the cold night air of Bloemfontein here in South Africa it had appeared to be Australia's turn to pull out an unlikely victory from the very jaws of defeat.

Robbed of the influential Matt Burke through a thigh injury Australia had looked down and out as South Africa and Joel Stransky opened up a 16-3 half-time lead.

Eales, though he is an immense player, has had his leadership qualities questioned recently. Now, when it really mattered, some of us wondered if the mild-mannered Queenslander would be up for the job.

Forty minutes later we had our answer. Eales set a fearsome example. First he took over Burke's kicking duties, and promptly nailed three penalties before converting Ben Tune's late try. In between times the inspirational Eales was all over the pitch, first to the breakdown, driving on his team by personal example.

His towering line-jumping almost single-handedly put Francois Pienaar's fearsome pack of forwards to the sword but cruelly Australia left it all just too late.

South Africa had clung on to a 25-19 win. It was little wonder Eales found words hard to come by in the after-match press conference.

Manfully, however, Eales did his best, even though he handled the stream of questions with the precise care and pained expression of someone prising shards of glass from their fingertips.

Reluctantly he admitted: "The disappointment is very hard to explain. It goes very deep and I know the hurt won't go away quickly. It may never disappear.

"We've had to live with some tough calls in the past year. First there was Rob Andrew's late drop-goal that killed us in the World Cup quarter- finals. That was bad enough but now these two defeats come along and hit us just where it hurts. To lose like that two weeks running is about as hard as it gets.

"I'd like to be positive, but all I can think about at the moment are the mistakes we made, the unforced errors that ultimately cost us both matches. Of course, it was heartening to see the boys get stuck in like that but unfortunately it wasn't enough. That's what makes it even more galling. Words can't explain how I feel."

Eales, however, should take considerable satisfaction from his own outstanding contribution to the first Tri-Nations series. He has been the pick of all the southern hemisphere forwards and, for most people's money, was undoubtedly the player of the tournament.

Knowing Eales, he would no doubt, modestly insist that would be overstating the case but then what does he know about that kind of thing?