SYDNEY - As a boy John Eales fantasised about kicking a rugby test-winning goal for the Wallabies.

"And here's John Eales," the young boy would say, mimicking a rugby commentator as he played in his backyard in Brisbane.

"The crowd hushes in his final moments of concentration. Can he do it? Can he kick the winning goal for Australia?"

Invariably he did, sending the ball soaring over the family washing line and into his neighbour's yard.

More than 20 years later, as Australia's captain, he repeated the feat for real in one of Australian rugby's greatest moments.

With his place in rugby history assured, Eales announced yesterday he would retire after Australia play the All Blacks in Sydney on September 1.

In a career studded with highlights, Saturday August 5, 2000 will stand out as one of his greatest moments.

With Australia trailing New Zealand in injury time in the deciding Bledisloe Cup match in Wellington, the referee blew his whistle to award the Wallabies a possible match-winning penalty near the sideline.

Eales hauled himself up from the bottom of a ruck and indicated the Wallabies would kick for goal. But as he looked around for goalkicker Stirling Mortlock he quickly discovered he had left the field because of cramp.

It was not an easy kick, 30 metres out and near the sideline, with a notorious Wellington wind and tens of thousands of All Blacks supporters booing. Back home, millions of Australians sat on the edge of their seats.

Eales steeled himself and began the goal kicking mantra he had practised as a young boy: "Head down, slow, follow through to the posts." Eales kicked the ball as sweetly as he would kiss his wife to give Australia a 24-23 win and the Bledisloe Cup.

The man nicknamed "Nobody" - because "nobody's perfect" - has had many great rugby moments since he first pulled on a Wallaby jumper against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1991.

In 1999, Eales returned to Wales to lead the Wallabies to World Cup victory. According to a biography released yesterday, Eales wrote in his diary the day before the final against France: "Tomorrow is the realisation of our destiny".

And last month Eales captained the Wallabies to an historic first series win against the British and Irish Lions.

A veteran of 83 tests, 52 of them as captain, Eales is regarded as the complete rugby player - a towering lock who can dominate lineouts, execute try-saving tackles, kick goals and soar into the air to stop the ball sailing over the crossbar.

He is a ferocious competitor, but a gentleman both on and off the field - a perfect ambassador for rugby, particularly as it matured from amateurism to professionalism.

"One of the best bits of advice Dad gave me was to just go out there and enjoy myself," Eales said in a recent interview.

Born to a Catholic middle-class family in Brisbane, Eales attended a Marist Brothers school whose motto is "viriliter age" or act courageously. He excelled at sport and in his studies.

He scored the winning try in his first rugby match as an eight-year-old. The young Eales ran around the field yelling, "We slaughtered them."

"You can't succeed in the top level of a sport without having that killer instinct," Eales said in a magazine interview.

"My whole focus is on winning, but it's a misconception that this has to be expressed aggressively."

But during a decade of international rugby Eales has been on the receiving end of some tough football. His injury list includes two fractured eye sockets, damaged shoulders which have required two operations and Achilles tendon damage.

Eales' natural skills as a footballer, his sportsmanship and composure on the field have made him a player other great players are happy to follow into battle. But there is no strut to his step or bravado.

"Your good days are never that good and your bad days are never that bad," he says of his philosophy on winning and losing. "It's not the cards you are dealt, but how you deal with them."

In the dressing room before the World Cup victory in 1999, coach Rod Macqueen told the Wallabies about a group of 20 Australian soldiers in World War One who stood their ground against overwhelming German forces.

"This position will be held...if this section cannot remain here alive, it will remain here dead," was the order from a young Australian lieutenant on the battlefield.

The Wallabies left the dressing room in silence and followed Eales into battle to "Bring Back Will," the William Webb Ellis trophy Australia had first won in 1991 under Nick Farr-Jones.

But according to the Eales biography, it was a small child on the other side of the world, in a suburb of his hometown Brisbane, who inspired him to greatness on that day at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

His son Elijah had sent him a fax. It read in part: "He (John) will go ahead strong and mighty like the prophet Elijah" Luke 1,17. Condemning the French to rugby hell. Go for it Dad and have the game of your life!"

It was written by Eales' mother-in-law, but had toddler Elijah's scribbled signature on the bottom. When Eales returned home he sat with Elijah in his arms and cried.

Now, at 31 years of age, Eales plans to retire from rugby at the end of the current Tri-Nations series.

He said it was a decision he had agonised over, but after talking with family and friends he believed now was the best time to hang up his boots.

"At the end of the Lions series I sat back and reassessed my playing future and I decided that I would throw everything into this Tri-Nations campaign before stepping down for good," he said.

- REUTERS

It's the end of the road for skipper Eales