Fijians fly with Eagles

Rugby league
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The Independent Online
THE most impressive form in the Stones Centenary Championship over the last month has come not from Wigan or St Helens, but from a Sheffield Eagles side that has reversed its early-season fallibility with five wins in a row.

The Eagles have numbered Saints, Leeds and Warrington among their recent victims and will take on the London Broncos at the Valley this afternoon confident of equalling their best ever run in the top division.

In search of reasons for their transformation it is necessary to look in directions as diverse as Fiji, France and Featherstone. As befits a club in a city without any depth of rugby league background, the Eagles have never been afraid to cast far afield. Even for them, however, signing three members of Fiji's World Cup squad was a bold move.

"They are suffering a bit in the cold of course," the Eagles' founder, chairman and coach Gary Hetherington said, "but they have all settled in well." Today, with London's expatriate Fijian community behind them, all three could appear together in the first team for the first time.

Joe Dakuitoga, who has solid Australian experience, has quickly established himself on the right wing while Waisale Sovatabuashould return at full- back after a shoulder injury. The prop, Malakai Yasa, who has made only two substitute appearances in the first team but showed his potential with three tries in six minutes for the reserves last week, could make his full debut.

The French connection is Jean-Marc Garcia, a wingman for his national side, but successfully switched to centre at Sheffield. "Unusually for a Frenchman his strength is his tackling, and we are pleased with the way he has worked out," Hetherington said. "We have had links with him for the last three years and, although he had talks with the new Super League side being set up in Paris, he decided he would rather play in England."

Perhaps the most important missing - or mislaid - link in the Sheffield line-up, however, has been Mark Aston. The scrum-half moved to Featherstone last season, but showed few glimpses of his Eagles form. A year later, Hetherington brought him home for a fraction of the original fee.

It was not only good business, it has also revived the Eagles. "It took a match or two for him to settle back into the side, but he has started to play some of the best rugby of his career," said Hetherington, who signed him as a teenager from a pub side in Selby almost a decade ago.

Although Aston may miss the match today with a thigh strain, the return of a notable home-grown talent has been just as influential in Sheffield's revival as the arrival of the foreign legion.