Poor old England are not having an easy time of it ahead of this weekend's opening Test against Australia. Deflated by news from the Churchill Cup tournament in Canada, where the laughably rebranded "Saxons" lost a second-string international to a team of Picts masquerading as Scotland A, and thoroughly depressed by the New South Wales deluge that disrupted their training here yesterday, Andy Robinson's tourists were further dismayed by a snippet of information from the Wallaby camp. John Eales is back.
It is enough to make grown men cry. The peerless second-row forward from Queensland, widely lauded as the single most accomplished player of the modern era, made a horrible mess of England during his career as a two-time World Cup winner. Indeed, he once beat them at Twickenham on his own, playing the ultimate captain's knock by dominating both the set pieces and the loose exchanges before emerging from the bottom of a ruck to kick a winning goal in the dying seconds. Now, he is back in green and gold harness.
Not as an active participant, of course, although Eales, who retired in 2001, would probably be too good for this understrength touring side even now. The new Wallaby hierarchy, led by his mentor John Connolly, are using him in an advisory capacity. Eales is spending a good deal of time at the Wallaby base in Coffs Harbour, conducting leadership seminars and giving motivational talks to individual players. "John was a great player and a great captain," Connolly said. "I want him involved because there are a number of people in this team who could learn a fair bit from him."
Connolly, who started the northern hemisphere season in the Guinness Premiership with Bath, has long been concerned at the Wallabies' fortunes, which have been in free fall since this time last year.
Since succeeding Eddie Jones as national coach, he has taken steps to address his country's obvious shortcomings in the scrum and, more importantly, what he perceives as declining standards in general behaviour. There have been fitness issues, drugs issues and public order issues, resulting in fines, suspensions and, in the case of the former rugby league wing Wendell Sailor, a decisive cutting of the cord. If ever a team needed an Eales to put them straight, the Australians do.
"The key to a successful team is to have a very strong group of individuals, who run the team on and off the field," Connolly said. "These leadership courses are part of the process. They are about identifying the aspects in this side that will make it special and demonstrating the importance of taking and enjoying responsibility."
To their credit, the England players do not have a discipline problem. They are so well behaved, they are in danger of bringing rugby into some sort of repute. They have problems of other descriptions, though, not least in their back division - something Brian Ashton, newly reappointed as the red rose army's attacking strategist, is working overtime to address. Some of his favourite players - the full-back Iain Balshaw, the young centre Mathew Tait and the elderly centre Mike Catt - are on the trip, and all are likely to play a prominent part on Sunday. Olly Barkley is favourite to start at outside-half, while Magnus Lund, of Sale, is challenging hard for a first cap among the loose forwards.
Australia seem certain to ask Mat Rogers, another of their ex-league contingent, to replace the injured Matt Giteau at inside-centre; a move that would establish him as one of the most versatile performers ever to play international union. Rogers has turned out at full-back, outside-centre and outside-half, as well as on both wings, and while his latest position is as demanding as any he will at least be surrounded by half-decent players in the contrasting shapes of George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Stirling Mortlock, Lote Tuqiri and Chris Latham. And if they fail to see him right, there is always Eales.
Stevens out to complete conversion into prop idol
By Chris Maume
While his England team-mates have been preparing to take on Australia Down Under, Matt Stevens has had more important matters to attend to. Last night he was due to go head to head in the final of X Factor: Battle of the Stars on ITV 1 against Lucy Benjamin, better known as Phil Mitchell's former squeeze in EastEnders.
Benjamin and Stevens fought off the Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles in the semis, the Bath prop weighing in with Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman", plus a brief detour into Kanye West's "Golddigger". He then stole the show with Robbie Williams' "She's The One". Benjamin was favourite last night - but Stevens was out to prove that He's The One.