Rugby Union: Eales shoulders a heavy burden

Chris Hewett spoke to Australia's new captain, who enters new territory today
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Rob Andrew could almost smell the try-line. Ten more metres, 12 perhaps, and the 1991 World Cup might well be England's. But that match at Twickenham, tight as a tourniquet from start to finish, had been notable for the ferocity of its tackling, and when a tall, lean figure emerged from the surrounding chaos to haul down the outside-half a few feet from glory, the whole of Australia knew that the Poms had played their last card.

Had the tackler been Tim Horan or Jason Little, Simon Poidevin or Willie Ofahengaue, the adulation would have been generous, but routine. This, though, was someone different; this was John Eales, an amazingly gifted and stunningly athletic second- row forward, but a second-row forward all the same. Second-rows were put on this earth to win line-out's and scrummage their opponents into oblivion, not make World Cup-winning tackles in open field.

Those who had seen the Queenslander's debut against Wales on home turf at Ballymore earlier that season might have anticipated liberal amounts of jam on the traditional boilerhouse bread. At 21, an age when most northern hemisphere locks are still considered to be in nappies, Eales pocketed the key to the door of international rugby by displaying the full range of his skills - the running, the ball-handling, the cover tackling, the set-piece expertise, even the kicking - in a 63-6 victory of murderous proportions. Those who missed it soon picked up messages from the bush telegraph that the Wallabies had unearthed someone special.

Five years and one career-threatening shoulder injury later, the most accomplished tight forward in the world is captain of his country. Given that Eales has spread his gifts far and wide since breaking through at the top level, it is surprising that today's international with Scotland marks his first appearance at Murrayfield, one of the venues that captured his imagination as a child.

His relish at the prospect is obvious from the moment he opens his mouth. "It's been a long, hard grind over the last few months - Super-12, Tri- Nations, now this - but if you're finding it a drag to be playing Scotland at Murrayfield, there really must be something wrong. It should be a wonderful occasion for everyone in the Wallaby party."

Yet the feel-good factor sits uneasily alongside this particular Australian side, struggling as they are to create a new line-up from the ashes of last year's World Cup campaign and an uncomfortable ride through a Tri- Nations competition utterly dominated by New Zealand. With Michael Lynagh playing for his pension at Saracens, Phil Kearns on the long-term injury list, Willy O falling apart at the seams and David Campese, high priest of rugby adventure, publicly defrocked and confined to the bench for this afternoon's match, Eales has a heavy load to bear.

Is he up to the job? Not in a playing sense - Eales would walk blindfold into any side in the world - but as a leader of men? Kearns, his predecessor as Wallaby captain, registered the doubts of many when he said: "I'm not quite sure about him yet. I don't think he is a natural captain, although the guys have enormous respect for his ability and that helps. It's just that as skipper you have to make some hard and unpopular decisions and, on occasions, get stuck into blokes. I don't think that's John, but maybe it will come."

Eales, so profoundly bashful and self-effacing that it is almost impossible to imagine him losing his rag on the pitch, let alone off it, is alive to the debate. "Look, I didn't greatly expect to be made captain, although like every other player I'd half- fantasised about leading my country at some point. But it's no big problem. I try to adjust to each different situation in a way that suits my personality. There is no point at all in trying to be someone you're not; I figure that I was given the job because of who I was, so that should be enough."

Anyway, there is a strong seam of solid realism beneath the layers of modesty. Eales is under no illusions about Australia's place in the world pecking order - he puts his Wallabies no higher than fifth - and as a result, he is deeply wary of the Scots, whom he considers to be a genuine danger to his touring party's designs on a Celtic Triple Crown.

"The World Cup last year was very disappointing" - the word "disappointing" is at the extreme edge of Eales' vocabulary - "because we felt we had a side good enough to win the tournament, only to find ourselves failing to perform when it really mattered. Right now, we are very consciously in a rebuilding stage in the light of retirement and injuries, and to be honest, I couldn't place us in the top four. The last time we played England, we lost; the last time we went to France, they held us one-all. To rise up the rankings we need continuity of performance and, above all, we need results.

"On paper, we've got a fairly inexperienced front row, although I must say that Richard Harry played the game of his life in Glasgow last weekend. And while our back division has tons of ability, the Scots are very exciting in that department, too. Gregor Townsend can be deadly - he plays with real brains - and we all know the things of which Craig Chalmers and Gary Armstrong are capable. It's a big test for us."

Aussie captains down the ages have tried to lull opponents into a false sense of security by buttering them up before the kick-off. Eales is more honest-to-goodness than many of his predecessors, but if the Scots take his words at face value and walk out at Murrayfield too confident by half, they will live to regret it.