'A Captain's Cup' - an exclusive eight-part Radio Sport podcast series every Friday in which Louis Herman-Watt and Daniel McHardy interview every Rugby World Cup-winning captain. In part 4, John Eales discusses how rugby turning professional had his Wallabies battle-hardened for the 1999 World Cup.
"If this is not the most important thing in your life for most of this year, then you shouldn't be here."
Bob Dwyer's message to his Wallabies team ahead of the 1991 Rugby World Cup was direct and to the point. At that time, playing rugby wasn't the players' job; the game was still amateur and the driving factor behind competing was the passion of playing and representing your country. It was a mentality Eales took into the last two World Cup tournaments of the amateur era – in 1991 and 1995.
So when rugby gained professional status after the 1995 tournament, nothing changed for the Wallabies lock.
"Because I came through those amateur days and then as it turned professional, for me it didn't feel any different," he recalls. "Maybe for people watching and the hype around it may have been a little bit different but it certainly didn't feel all that different for me from the point of view of being amateur or professional."
Eales captained the Wallabies to World Cup glory in 1999, crediting the professional game for the Australian side's development between tournaments. In 1996, the Super 12 club competition was launched, contested by teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
New Zealand had five teams in the competition and South Africa had four, while Australia had just three. The fewer number of teams worked in their favour, as it allowed good, reliable combinations to form across the park and the progress the nation had made was reflected in their results at the international level.
"With Super Rugby, Australian teams generally adapted pretty well to it early, and we only had three teams so we had a concentration of our talent," Eales said.
"There was a lot of familiarity in those connections…and those various combinations came together very importantly in the big matches."
After losing seven straight tests against New Zealand between 1995 and 1997, a three-game sweep over their trans-Tasman rivals in 1998 was a clear sign the Wallabies were trending in the right direction heading into the 1999 World Cup.
A number of Wallabies missed large parts of the 1999 Super Rugby season but, according to Eales, that didn't hurt the side, but rather helped it heading into the World Cup.
"That doesn't hurt you because you've got some players coming in really fresh and some that are battle-hardened. You need that mix all the time because it's rare you're going to be able to run with the same team all the time."
The Wallabies were a force in the group stages of the tournament, sweeping aside the USA, Ireland and Romania to top their pool, before seeing off Wales and South Africa in the knockout stages to book their spot in the final.
When their spot was confirmed, their opponent was still to be found as New Zealand and France met in the other semifinal. Eales says his Wallabies side was hopeful New Zealand would be their opponent because they were easier to plan for.
Instead, it was France that stood between them and a World Cup title.
Eales said heading into the final, there was no way to avoid thinking about what was on the line.
"You know you're going into a game where at the end of the 80 minutes of that match, you're either going to be world champions or you're not. There's nothing in between those two things. It's not going to make your life good or bad but it does change your life from the perspective where you've got this moment of judgment that you've worked so hard towards, and you can walk away from it as a winner."
With tries to Ben Tune and Owen Finegan, and 25 points from the boot of Matt Burke, the Wallabies claimed a 35-12 win to confirm their status as the best team in the world.
Eales said while many might see it as a culmination of a four-year period, it was much more than that.
"It's not a four years achievement, it's a lifetime achievement."
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