Eales towers over the meanest of streets

Rugby Union: World Cup; Chris Rea meets the Australian who is aiming to scale the heights again
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The Independent Online
"SICKENING, isn't it?" said Bob Templeton, Australia's assistant coach, last week. "Here's a bloke who can run, jump, catch, pass, tackle and kick goals - and he's still only 24." When John Eales was first selected for Australia four years ago, he was a fledgling lock whose massive 6ft 8in frame had outgrown his strength. There was some growing still to do yet the selectors, as is the general custom in Australian sport, were content to give talented youth its chance. Immediately their faith was rewarded and in a poll of 12 rugby writers taken after the 1991 World Cup, Eales was the unanimous choice as the outstanding lock in the tournament as, in all probability, he will be again this time.

As a batsman and bowler of above average skill, he has a cricketer's adhesive hands combined with the agility and suppleness of a track runner, a sport at which he excelled at school. Hence the unusually high degree of co-ordination for one of his size. When Eales, who lives in Brisbane and works as a trainee manager with Qantas, was propelled as a 20-year- old into the international spotlight, it was obvious that Australia would get an immediate return from their long-term investment. Wales were swept away 63-6 and England followed, thrashed handsomely 40-15 in as devastating a display of high- powered rugby as any produced in recent years.

"That," recalls Eales, "was the first and the only time I have played against Martin Bayfield." In the World Cup which followed, England's locks were Ackford, Dooley and Redman, but Eales recognises that if, in the intervening years, he has reached full maturity as a player, so too has Bayfield. "I'm thoroughly looking forward to the contest. We are, I think, similar in style and outlook."

Both would prefer the line-out, that meanest of streets, to be cleared of the thieves and muggers in order that they could practise their noble art unmolested, but Eales supports the views recently expressed by Bayfield that it has become a no-go area for referees who, for the most part, leave it unpoliced. "In order to survive, you have to cheat. But when the legislators make changes which are patently absurd without any reference to those of us who have to try to make them work, what can you expect?"

Eales is particularly critical of the outside arm law which, for this tournament, has been extended to include the two-handed deflection. "The theory is that if a jumper is using his inside arm to deflect the ball he cannot be using it to lever himself up on an opponent. In practice, he simply stretches across with his outside arm to raise himself up. But to be honest the referees in the World Cup aren't too bothered about it. They've been leaving us to our own devices."

Eales, modest and delightfully unassuming, provides a welcome antidote to the fevered ramblings of David Campese. "Believe me, we have a huge regard for this England side. I doubt if there is a stronger pack in the tournament and potentially they have a back line to challenge the best." As for the criticisms of the Australians' play in the pool matches and their strangely pallid displays in all three games so far, Eales defends the party line. "If you were to examine our performances last year you'd see that we played poorly against Ireland and Italy but when it mattered in the game against Western Samoa, which we thought would be a hard test, and in the series against the All Blacks, we really turned it on. We are completely confident that we can do that again here."

On the other hand, Eales concedes that even against the Romanians, one of the weakest sides in the tournament, but a match Australia had to win, they were not world championship material. "It's true that when the West Indies were dominating world cricket they were utterly ruthless no matter what the quality of the opposition. That certainly cannot be said of us during the past year."

The loss of Nick Farr-Jones, their top strategist and commander-in-chief, together with the lingering suspicion that one or two of their top players have reached the point from which there is no return to the peak, could account for these lapses. "I don't accept that," says Eales. "Of course we have missed Farr-Jones. He was a great player, a fixture in the side for so long and at the centre of our tactical plans. But his successors are different players with very different strengths from which we can profit equally well. Nor is it true that we have an ageing team. I think that the squad as a whole is fitter than it has ever been."

Eales accepts, however, that in the past fortnight the All Blacks have closed the gap and are very definitely the team in form. "Despite all our outer show of confidence we are no different from other sides. We are perfectly happy that the All Blacks have taken over our mantle as favourites. But just you see - we'll be in there again at the kill."

at Newlands, Cape Town

M Catt Bath 15 M Burke New South Wales

T Underwood Leicester 14 D Smith Queensland

W Carling Harlequins, capt 13 J Little Queensland

J Guscott Bath 12 T Horan Queensland

R Underwood Leicester 11 D Campese New South Wales

R Andrew Wasps 10 M Lynagh Queensland, capt

D Morris Orrell 9 G Gregan ACT

J Leonard Harlequins 1 D Crowley Queensland

B Moore Harlequins 2 P Kearns New South Wales

V Ubogu Bath 3 E McKenzie New South Wales

M Johnson Leicester 4 R McCall Queensland

M Bayfield Northampton 5 J Eales Queensland

T Rodber Northampton 6 W Ofahengaue New South Wales

D Richards Leicester 8 T Gavin New South Wales

B Clarke Bath 7 D Wilson Queensland

Referee: D Bishop (New Zealand). Kick-off: 12 noon (ITV)