The Wallabies' rock for the hard places

The world champions are here, and so is 17 stones of mayhem called Owen Finegan. Alex Hayes met him
Click to follow

The astonishing news that Owen Finegan is the only Australian player in the best World XV selected by Zurich, the sponsors of the English Premiership, simply brings a wry smirk to Eddie Jones' face. Not an arrogant or disgusted look, but rather the reaction you would expect from a man who knows best. "At least they got that selection right," he says.

The new Wallabies coach, who took over from the hugely successful Rod Macqueen after the defeat of the Lions in July, has good reason to smile. Despite what some of the more biased polls may say, Jones has inherited arguably the strongest pool of players the game has ever seen. A measure of the strength in depth of the World and Tri-Nations champions can be seen in their selections for the opening fixture of this five-week European Tour.

Today's match against an England National Division XV hardly requires the most experienced of line-ups, so Jones has sensibly decided to rest several of his big guns. Imagine the shock, then, to discover that every member of the "under-strength" team he will send out at Welford Road has been capped at least once. Not that the former ACT Brumbies coach had much choice in the matter. Of the 30 players he selected for the tour of England, Spain, France and Wales, only one is a Test virgin. Steve Kefu, though, is certain to break his duck sometime before the end of November.

Finegan, for his part, will have plenty of chances to add to his 40 caps. He is rested for this first match, but, judging by Jones' praises, will be wearing the No 6 jersey for the Spanish Test in Madrid on Thursday. "I want to play my best team for that game and someone with Owen's ability is obviously an integral part of those plans," says Jones, who is keen not to fall into the kind of trap that saw a rusty England lose to Ireland in the Six Nations' decider last Saturday. "I know it is not the most difficult of fixtures, but I am anxious that we are not caught cold when we come to play the big boys."

In the Australian squad, they do not come much bigger than the 6ft 4in and 17st Finegan. In fact, only Tom Bowman, Justin Harrison and David Giffin are taller, while no one is as heavy as the Wallabies' blind-side flanker. Finegan is a brute of man, who likes nothing more than to charge at opponents, although he also has a sound technique and a surprisingly impressive turn of speed. "It's because I played lots of basketball at school," says the bruising back-rower who is not inclined to taking prisoners.

Not even his international team-mates are spared. In April, he was suspended for stamping on Michael Foley's head during the Super 12 semi-final between ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds. Finegan insists that the 34-year-old hooker has long since forgiven him. "A series win against the Lions helps wipe slates clean," he says.

Further proof that he is much respected by his peers came at John Eales' farewell dinner last month. That night, Finegan received the trophy for Wallaby player of the year. The award is significant because it is decided by votes cast by the players in the dressing-room immediately after each Test. He finished the year with 183 points, only just edging out scrum-half and team captain George Gregan.

"That was the best honour I've received," he says. "Being picked for the World XV was nice, but I am always a little suspicious of those types of accolades, especially when the team includes only one Aussie and has New Zealand's Leon MacDonald at full-back even though he played only two internationals all season. Being selected by the guys meant so much more."

No wonder he scooped the prize. Finegan, who only regained his place in the ACT Brumbies Super 12 team in February, had to wait until the first Lions Test in June for a return to the Wallabies' fold. But he was in superlative form against the British tourists and then maintained the same level of performance throughout the Tri-Nations.

No mean feat when you consider how close he has come to giving up in the last three years. First there was shoulder reconstruction in the lead up to the 1999 World Cup, which he helped Australia win with a series of explosive appearances from the bench, culminating in a second-half try in the final against France. Then, in May 2000, came news that he required major surgery on his knee, forcing him to sit out 10 months and watch the whole of last year's international season.

"It was tough at times," he says, "but in a funny way I think the two setbacks helped me, too. Sometimes, taking a bit of a sabbatical is no bad thing. It certainly made me appreciate how much I loved the game and how much I enjoyed being part of this incredible winning team."

Finegan can remember the difficult times when Australia were not the force they are now. He points to the appointment of Macqueen as head coach as the turning point. "As soon as Rod took over, we knew we would go on to be a special unit," says the 29-year-old, who made his Test debut in 1996 against Wales. "He brought a completely different approach to the game. For a start, he stopped us staying at hotels and decided that we should all live together in apartments. It meant we all got to know each other a lot better and were able to develop as a close unit. That makes all the difference and explains why we're doing so well now.

"There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie among the players. We all help each other, but we push one another as well. There is real competition for places and we all know that one bad performance could mean any one of us is out of the first team."

Despite the presence of other experienced blind-side flankers – namely Matt Cockbain, Mark Connors and David Lyons – Finegan has no intention of surrendering his Test berth. Having helped the Wallabies secure a series victory over the Lions, as well as the Bledisloe Cup and the Tri-Nations, the man they nicknamed Mellon has one more trophy to win. "It's called the Cook Cup," he says, "and I need it to complete the set."