Eales' absence triggers Queensland mind game

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The Independent Online

Ray Gravell, that wonderful old warhorse of a Lions centre, used to offer an important piece of advice to his red-shirted brethren. "Always get your tackles in early," the Llanelli man would say, "even if they're late." Rugby has changed a fair bit since Gravell toured South Africa 21 years ago; as Queensland, the engine of the Wallaby game for the best part of two decades, demonstrated yesterday, it is now a question of getting your excuses in early.

Perhaps it was the disappointing withdrawal of the great John Eales from tomorrow's Queensland-Lions confrontation at Ballymore that persuaded the hosts to plough a defensive furrow ahead of the so-called "fourth Test". Eales, struggling with an Achilles injury, had initially planned to play 40 minutes against the tourists, but the Wallaby medical staff thought better of it. "I've been advised against turning out," said Australia's peerless lock forward and captain. "It's frustrating for sure, but this old war wound is still causing me some pain."

No sooner had Eales joined two fellow Wallaby first-choices, the full-back Chris Latham and the right wing Ben Tune, on the non-starters list than the Queensland hierarchy began a concerted effort to drive down local expectations. "We've had very little preparation time for this match," said the coach, Mark McBain, who made a Test appearance at hooker against the 1989 Lions. He was echoed by Eales' replacement as Queensland captain, the dynamic outside centre Daniel Herbert. "I disagree with those who see this as some kind of fourth Test," he pronounced. "We've barely had a run together since the end of the Super 12 tournament in May, and the Lions are fielding something very close to their first-choice side."

Graham Henry and the rest of the Lions hierarchy will not buy the Queensland line for a second. While Eales would leave a crater-sized hole in any side, the Reds can at least call on another Wallaby lock in Mark Connors and will arm themselves with a mass of international experience. Four forwards ­ Michael Foley, Glenn Panoho, Matt Cockbain and Toutai Kefu ­ have served considerable amounts of time in the trenches at Test level, as have the half-backs Sam Cordingley and Elton Flatley. A younger Kefu, the centre Steve, was one of the big successes of Queensland's run into the Super 12 semi-finals, while the loose-head prop Nick Stiles is favoured to face the Lions when the really serious stuff begins here on 30 June.

As Eales pointed out yesterday: "Some of our younger guys are about to be involved in the biggest provincial game of their careers. England are now right up there with the best in the world, and I rate this Lions squad higher than England. These games don't come along too often." Which made it especially unfortunate that two of the state's brighter prospects, the outside-half Shane Drahm and the full-back Nathan Williams, should have crossed McBain by breaking a curfew after Tuesday's match in Townsville, in which both played. They were promptly ditched from tomorrow's 22-man squad, which just goes to show that some Australians do give a XXXX about team discipline.

The Lions match-day party steered well clear of the training paddock yesterday, not least because Andy Robinson's sweat sessions have left the entire squad counting bruises now developing on the bruises that were already there. The casualties have been unusually heavy, even for a Lions trip, and final decisions are imminent on the two incapacitated hookers, Phil Greening of Wasps and Robbie McBryde of Llanelli.

Greening said before leaving Townsville that, even if he passed an assessment test over the weekend, he might be forced to go "off tour" for a week to complete his recovery in a clinic. That would leave him only the midweek match with the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on 3 July as a realistic target.

There is also serious concern about Mike Catt, one of the central performers for England in recent months. The Bath midfielder's calf problem is said to be improving steadily, but, if he fails to make the cut for next Tuesday's match with Australia A in Gosford, his hopes and dreams for this tour may subside into nothing.

Queensland (v British Lions, Ballymore, tomorrow): M Tabrett; J Pelesafa, D Herbert (capt), S Kefu, D McCallum; E Flatley, S Cordingley; N Stiles. M Foley, G Panoho, N Sharpe, M Connors, M Cockbain, D Croft, T Kefu, Replacements: B Wakely, A Scotney, J Ramsamy, J Roe, M Mitchell, S Kerr, S Hardman.

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