Playing against the British & Irish Lions is a once in a career highlight for Australian players. The Sydney Morning Herald sports columnist Peter Fitzsimons played twice against the 1989 tourists, while John Eales led the 2001 Wallabies to victory in the last series.
Now Fitzsimons has interviewed Eales to reveal just how much that triumph in 2001 meant to him and to Australian rugby. It was the series that launched the 'Sea of Red', the raucous, red-clad army of Lions fans who so embarrassed the home officials with their fervant and vocal support that they had to devise ways and means of getting the Wallaby fans to rival them.
The article was published in the SMH this week and appears on their Rugby Heaven website. It was such a good read we thought we should give it a broader audience and offer it to our readers. Here is the article in full:
The first time the Lions truly hove to on the horizon of John Eales, he was still a callow teenager, living in Brisbane, who had never pulled on a representative jersey. But something about the 1989 series got to him.
''I watched every minute of every Test,'' he recalls. ''And I particularly remember watching the Wallabies singing the national anthem, before the first Test, against the British Lions, wondering what it would be like.'' Twelve years later, in 2001, Eales would have his answer. Wonderfully spine-tingling!
In 1999, of course, he had captained the Wallabies to victory in the World Cup, and by the end of 2000 and another successful year, there were no honours the game had left to bestow on him, no summits he had not climbed … except one.
''The fact that the Lions were coming in 2001 kept me playing for another year,'' he says flatly. ''There is just something magical about a Lions tour. The fact that it only happens once every 12 years and is the best of the best from Great Britain and Ireland; that makes it much, much more than another Test series. I wanted to play in it and I wanted the Wallabies to win more than ever, because after watching so closely the last series and realising how special it was, I knew this was our chance.''
It would be tough. When Eales ran out at the head of his troops for the first Test at the Gabba, up against Martin Johnson's Lions, the world champions were filled with confidence, only to be confronted by something entirely unexpected. The particular tunnel they ran out of at the Brisbane ground faced straight towards the stand where the Lions supporters were at their thickest, and at first, all the Wallabies could see was tens of thousands of red jerseys, filled with people roaring for the other team. And even when they looked around, it didn't get a whole lot better. A veritable sea of red.
''Wow,'' Eales remembers with a grimace. ''It was just so striking. We were a team that had been through a lot, and prided ourselves on our composure whatever the situation. But that was the most startled we'd ever been. At half-time, and down 12-3, in the dressing-room as I spoke, there were eyes everywhere but on me. There was a strong sense that this just wasn't our night.''
That sense was confirmed at the final whistle, as the Wallabies went down 29-14. The storyline gained another factor when, just before the second Test down in Melbourne, coach Rod Macqueen took Eales aside and told him something he would tell the team after the Test. Win, lose, or draw, he was going to retire as soon as the three-Test series was over.
''I'd always wanted to win the series, of course,'' Eales says. ''But after Rod told me that, it was obsessive. He was a coach that gave so much to Australian rugby, and it would have been awful to send him out with a series loss.''
Again, it would be tough. Again, the Lions played well, and again the Wallabies were down at half-time 11-6. But this time, the mood in the dressing room was different.
''This time,'' Eales recalls with relish, ''there was a very strong sense of this is our night, and we can take these blokes if we just stay at it, and back ourselves.''
Specifically, you, Joe Roff. Just minutes into the second half, the flying Wallaby winger backed himself to take an intercept and … did so, to run away and score one in the corner for the goodies. Double or nothing, Joe?
Roff took the bet, and shortly after scored another try to put the Wallabies in the lead.
''After that,'' Eales says, ''it all came together and we dominated them.'' The Wallabies won, going away, 35-14, to even the series, setting up a finale to beat them all.
Complicating things somewhat was the loss of star Wallaby five-eighth Stephen Larkham before the third Test at Sydney's Stadium Australia, meaning utility back Elton Flatley had to fill in. That utility very nearly blew a gasket in the first half after a head-high tackle but played on.
''It was rugby at its best,'' Eales says, ''with two great teams before a roaring crowd doing everything to win to take the whole series.''
With all the rugby world watching, the evenly balanced contest roared for the duration. Early in the second half the Lions skipped to a 20 to 16 lead courtesy of a Jonny Wilkinson try and conversion. But then Wallaby centre Daniel Herbert was able to return serve with an ace in the left-hand corner, and with that try converted, the home team – RAH! – was up 23-20.
Several penalties later, the situation with a minute to go was Australia defending a 29-23 lead, but the Lions were right on the Wallabies line, with their own put-in to the lineout.
''We were composed,'' Eales says. ''We knew it all came down to this. We had to either win the line-out or, at the very least, stop their driving maul, which was their main weapon.'' What say you, Justin Harrison, making your debut for the Wallabies, jumping against the mighty Martin Johnson at no.2 in the lineout. Shouting out coded Wallaby-speak, Harrison lets the others know he is going to go for it. Who else would Johnson call but himself in such a situation?
The ball goes in. Harrison leaps early and forward and snatches it! Relief, John? ''Not at all. We still had a minute or two to go, and there was no time for that in all the helter-skelter, until …''
Until the referee blows full-time. Now there is time for all that. Victory. Relief. Cheers, tears and beers – and fare thee well, Rod Macqueen – as off into the wild night they go. If the coming Lions series is only half as good as the last one, it will still be fantastic.
''It remains one of my favourite rugby memories,'' Eales says softly.
Follow Peter Fitzsimons on Twitter @Peter_Fitz and read him in the Sydney Morning Herald at http://www.smh.com.au.