The Rugby World Cup: Master of all trades

The Jumper: John Eales; David Llewellyn expects Australia's formidable captain to claim the high ground
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The Independent Online
THERE IS NOT much that John Eales cannot do on a rugby field. Indeed, if all the skills in the game were turned into an Olympic sport then Eales would be a decathlete. He is a ball-winner in line-out and loose; passes as sweetly as Jeremy Guscott; scores tries like a winger; runs almost as fast; kicks goals like Michael Lynagh (he is fifth in Australia's all-time list of points-scorers); shoves more than his weight in the set scrums; tackles like a tank; handles the ball with aplomb; captains the side with intelligence; and leads it from the front.

But for injury he would have won more than his present 64 caps, but his performances in amassing those have been more than enough to win the respect of peers, opponents and coaches around the globe during his eight-year career in the Australian second row.

He was barely 20 when he made his debut in a 60-point rout of Wales. His coach at the time, Bob Dwyer, remembers: "He scored a try down the left wing. He had really raced up in support, he took the pass and went on to touch down in the corner."

No wonder Dwyer named Eales in his 1991 World Cup squad later that year. After just a handful of games he had already earned a huge reputation, so that by the time the Wallabies came up against Ireland in the quarter- finals everyone was very wary of the 6ft 7in lock.

Donal Lenihan lined up against Eales that day, when the Irish almost pulled off the shock of the tournament, losing by a point in the end. Lenihan explains: "As a measure of how highly we regarded him we had devised a specific line-out arrangement to keep the ball away from him. That was the impact he had made in such a short space of time."

Another of his opponents in that World Cup was England second-row Paul Ackford. Their paths crossed in the final. Ackford says: "What impressed me, even in the old days of the line-out, which could be claustrophobic and intense, was that he was still able to make space for himself.

"We were always closer in those days, what with trying to lift the jumpers when it was still illegal to do so, and so it was easier to get to grips with an opponent. But not Eales. He somehow managed to evade the opposition's clutches. He seemed to hang out of the line and come in when the ball was thrown in."

Lenihan concurs, adding: "The line-out laws have changed so much since then, but even under the old regime, when it was a bit of a jungle in there and there was a lot grappling around on the floor, Eales was able to survive in that type of environment. People say it is easier to win line-out ball these days with the law changes, but even when he first appeared on the scene he won more than his share."

At 29, Eales is still doing it. "He was good then [in 1991], he is fantastic now," says Ackford. "He came in on the cusp, when there were still the dinosaurs around, guys who were great in the line-out and scrummage but that was it. Ian Jones of New Zealand was much the same as Eales, the pair of them proving that there was more to a lock's life than the set- pieces.

"He is adept at supporting the outside backs, just as a flanker would, yet he is perfectly capable of rucking and mauling. He has never avoided the heavy-duty work. I think he is probably the best in the world in the middle of the line-out. His goal-kicking just adds another dimension to an extraordinary second-row forward."

And what about the man who lies behind the player? Dwyer probably knows Eales better than most, so his assessment is worth listening to. "He plays like he is. He doesn't hide himself and he is one of those people who is interested in everything.

"I'll give you an instance. We were in Swansea in the early Nineties and I had arranged for some of the guys to attend a rehearsal of a male voice choir. Ealesy was in his early 20s. You don't expect much from guys of that age, certainly nothing cultured. But afterwards he said it was the most moving experience of his life."

Yet the thing everyone will remember about Eales is his level of skill. Dwyer again: "Normally when you think of great players you tend to recall the backs, because their athletic qualities are readily identified. But you can say the same things of Ealesy. He is a beautifully balanced runner, he can pass, he has agility."

Unfortunately for Australia, Eales has only just recovered from yet another injury. Says Lenihan: "It is difficult to into the World Cup without match-hardness, no matter how fit he might be. Lack of taking bangs, taking the knocks, could be critical to his form. Then again, it could have the opposite effect and mean he is so fresh he will be jumping out of his skin. And if you were a betting man you would have to back him to be one of the stars of the tournament."

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