Rugby World Cup: Eales' wait for chance to atone nears end

Australia's captain can ease memory of an English drop goal by reaching the game's summit.
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The Independent Online
JOHN EALES has been waiting since 1995 for the chance to atone for the Cape Town catastrophe - that quarter-final nightmare at Newlands when England's Rob Andrew kicked Australia out of the World Cup with a long-range drop goal in injury time.

Four years of planning and rebuilding, of looking ahead with one aim in mind, to win back the William Webb Ellis Trophy. But there was a time earlier this year when the captain's quest was hit by injury. The lanky lock, working out in a Brisbane gymnasium during pre-season strength conditioning, felt his shoulder collapse during a routine exercise.

"I was doing dips when I heard this clunk and it didn't feel too good," he said the day of the mishap. "I am concerned. Hopefully it's not too bad and it will repair, and repair quickly." Eales underwent surgery to re-attach a tendon, but surgeons found no associated muscle damage. It was mid-February and the race to fitness had started.

"Being positive that still gives me a chance for the World Cup, but everything will have to go my way," was the composed post-operative assessment. Eales easily made the deadline. He was back playing by late August, his focus shifting from the shoulder to the back-breaking task awaiting in Britain.

"We can do it, we can win the World Cup," says Eales, as Australia build for a campaign which starts with three pool matches in Ireland. "We've got a great chance. We've got depth in our squad, talent across the board. We have good competition within the team.

"This is what we've all been waiting for, what we've been working towards over the last four years. We've been through the hard times together in getting here and we've had some good times as well, most notably our wins over New Zealand last year. But the goal has always been the World Cup, from 1996 on."

Eales was 21, one of the babies of the squad, when the Wallabies won the World Cup in a Twickenham final eight years ago and, ironically, brought off a try-saving tackle on Andrew to prevent the outside-half from snatching that game as well.

"The team of 1991 had youth and experience and we were confident going into the tournament after some good results earlier in the year," he said. "I think this time we're peaking at the right time as well. The win over New Zealand in our last Test (on 28 August in Sydney) was a great confidence boost.

"This team always had belief in its ability but that one win has lifted the confidence even more. In 1995, I think we were a side that had been together for quite a while, had been on top for a few years, and couldn't quite hold on long enough to make the climb again. This time it's different. We've been on the way up, not trying to stay there."

A veteran of 64 Tests, with 33 of them as captain, Eales will become Australia's most capped captain in the quarter-finals of the tournament if he plays every game. Nick Farr-Jones currently holds the honour, having led Australia in 36 of his 63 Tests.

However for Eales, the record is a bonus. Representing the Wallabies is honour enough. "Playing rugby for Australia is about the people," he said. "It's not only about the people that are the Wallabies of the past and present, or the players and administrators at all other levels. Just as importantly, it is about the people who are the supporters.

"They are the common thread that bind together the many generations of Wallabies and are why we have such a proud national team.

"At the start of every Test match the team sings our national anthem, and right from the time I first cried my way through it against Wales in 1991 until the present, the anthem has always been a very special moment during which I follow my own ritual.

"As it begins, I will pick out an Australian supporter in the crowd, and sing with them throughout. I try to imagine myself in their shoes, and think of how much they would like to be in mine."

There has been speculation this World Cup might also be his last, even though, at 32, he will hardly be in the old-age category come the 2003 tournament, on home soil in Australia.

But if this is his farewell to the game's showpiece event, it helps explain his edginess and boyish anticipation. "How do I feel? I'm excited," he said. "But it will be great to actually get into it and finally play a game."

In 1991, the Wallabies were blessed with the finest, most adventurous back line in the game, led by the likes of Campese, Horan, Little and Lynagh. Two of them, Little and Horan, are back. But, according to Eales, the secret to World Cup success over the next six weeks will be forward strength. "No team can win without the basics," he warned. "Your game will have to be spot on at the scrum, at the lineout and at the breakdown."

He also dismissed any notion that the big three of the southern hemisphere - Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - have the tournament to themselves. "The gap between the north and south has definitely closed," he said. "All these sides can compete, and the top sides in the Five Nations can beat the Tri-Nations teams on their day. If you go with any other view it would be suicidal. Ireland gave us trouble earlier this year, England are obviously a very strong outfit, Wales are undefeated in their past eight games and Scotland are the reigning Five Nations champions.

"The difference with the northern hemisphere teams now is that they play with a lot more composure. The public perception might be that the European nations don't rate. But this Australian team has enormous respect for their northern hemisphere rivals."

Peter Jenkins is the rugby correspondent for The Australian newspaper.