Rugby union has always been about firm, competitive sport that is played with professionalism and sportsmanship. John Eales was perceived to be the definitive icon of rugby union and was widely recognised as the closest thing to a perfect player.
Having started his rugby career in 1990 with Queensland Reds, Eales may never have chosen to play rugby full-time. In his youth, Eales showed signs of becoming an extremely talented cricket player and even studied at the same school as Matthew Hayden – Australia’s talismanic opening batsman.
However, when he had finished university, he took the giant step into international rugby. He was destined to pull on the gold shirt of the Wallabies from the moment his career began and he pushed himself to becoming the best Lock in history.
Start of a Legend’s Career
Eales made his debut at the age of 21, against Wales, and went on to secure a further 85 caps for his country. Although the Welsh were a poor team at the time, Eales made his mark on the international stage and started with a bang by winning 13 out of 20 line outs in a comfortable 63-6 victory.
His next opponent was a tougher test, as they prepared to play England, who were coming off the back of completing the Grand Slam. Despite his youth and inexperience, Eales relished the chance to test his skills against a strong English team. Australia rolled over the English and ended up winning 40-15. Although he was one of the youngest players on the pitch, Eales had managed to dominate his opposite number – Martin Bayfield – and was already beginning to soak up the plaudits of fellow professionals around the world.
What no-one doubted about Eales was that he had the ability to do what he wanted for a long period of time. Eales had put his name up amongst the best players after only two matches at international level.
The man, who was nicknamed “Nobody” by a team-mate, was a remarkable player who continued to strive for improvement, even towards the end of his career and even his nickname acknowledged his hunger for progression.
The nickname had nothing to do with his personality but it relates to the well-known saying “Nobody’s perfect”. The nickname quickly became his title for the rest of his career, although Eales came to hate it.
Having joined an Australian side who were beginning to become one of the best teams of all time, Eales was in the team for the 1991 World Cup. This was the biggest stage of world rugby and it was the perfect platform for Eales to show that he was here to stay.
The Wallabies got off to a sluggish start in a seemingly easy group containing Argentina, Wales and Western Samoa, with Eales being played at Number 8 rather than Lock. A slow start led world rugby to believe that the Wallabies were a team in transition but the 38-3 victory over Wales seemed to be the turning point of the tournament.
With Eales back at Lock, the Wallabies stormed to the World Cup Final, where they would meet the hosts – England. Eales found the gong tough in the line out and the scrum but the game produced one of the most memorable moments in Eales’ ten year career. With the game still very close, Rob Andrew, the England back, broke through the Australian line and was on his way to scoring a crucial try. Eales had recognised the danger and came from nowhere to make a try saving tackle, which turned the momentum in Australia’s favour. The Wallabies went on to win the game 12-6 in Eales’ first ever World Cup appearance.
Keeping the Faith
Eales continued to be a key player for the Wallabies in the run up to the 1995 World Cup, after having several fruitless years since the last one. Despite numerous test wins, they had failed to win a Tri-Nations tournament with Eales in the side and had to turn their attentions to the World Cup. However, Rob Andrew got one over on Eales this time round, by scoring a last minute drop goal to knock the Wallabies out.
Despite a disappointing team performance, Eales continued to perform to the best of his abilities and further improved his reputation by showing off his ability as a goal kicker. Although goal kicking is not a remarkable achievement for a back, Eales was a forward and showed off his kicking skills against Romania. The tournament also marked the first match in which Eales captained Australia.
After a few years of disappointment, Rod McQueen became head coach of Australia in 1997 and instantly formed a partnership with Captain Eales. Although the first year was tough, they got stronger and stronger and in their last game of the season in 1998 against England, Eales got the perfect chance to show off his mental strength.
England had scored a late try to secure what looked like a win but when Mike Catt missed the kick, Australia were awarded a penalty after the restart. Eales had the chance to become an Australian hero or he would be vilified in his home land. Showing nerves of steel, Eales stroked the ball straight between the uprights and sent his team flying into the 1999 World Cup.
Needless to say, Eales was at his peak for the next few years and it showed in the results for his team. Success in the 1999 World Cup meant that he became one of 6 players to win the World Cup twice. Although Eales had picked up an injury prior to the World Cup, he came back in time for the opening game. His confidence oozed through him and into his team mates, despite the lack of confidence from those outside the Australian camp.
One moment emphasises the confidence that Eales had in his side. When playing against Wales, a team mate was being held in a headlock and was asked, “Where do you think you’re going boyo?” Eales leaned over to the Welsh player and simply said, “To Twickenham“.
He was right and he led his team to another World Cup triumph. This was followed up by back to back victories in the Tri Nations in 2000 and 2001. Eales had reached the end of his career with two World Cups and two Tri Nations. He also retired at the top of the scoring charts for any forward in international rugby. He recorded 173 points. He had scored 2 tries, 99 penalties and 69 conversions.
Although his rugby career was over, he is far from being retired. He was the founder of the Mettle Group, which is a business consultancy company and he is also the director of QM Technologies.
He has also shown an ability to write engaging articles and interesting books. He has released a book called Learning From Legends and is currently a columnist for the Financial Review.
Despite his post rugby career, Eales will always be remembered for what he did in the sport. A model professional from beginning to end on and off the pitch, he was the epitome of sportsmanship and work ethic. He pushed himself to the limit and his athleticism, skill and devotion to the game saw him become a true legend of rugby union.