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Former Wallabies Captain, John Eales shares his thoughts on the 2013 Lions squad

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By ARU Media Unit

Following the announcement of the 37-man British & Irish Lions squad to tour Australia this June and July, sat down exclusively John Eales, the last Wallaby to lead Australia to victory over the Lions. 

The highly decorated former skipper shared his thoughts on the selection of Sam Warbuton as Captain, the return of Brian O’Driscoll, the omission of Jonny Wilkinson and the breakdown of the Lions squad.
Sam Warburton
Eales, a former captain himself, believes Warburton is a good choice to lead the Lions to Australia. 
“Warburton had success leading Wales and he is seen as a guy who is very composed,” says Eales.
“People look up to him, he gets the best out of his players, he’s a forthright guy who seems to have an impact on the style of play the team has and he shows a lot of confidence in his players. He is seen as someone who relates well to referees, relates well to his own team and he certainly doesn’t take a backwards step.”
Eales believes Warburton was chosen because he can bring the squad together and give them the best chance for success.
“Gatland, who’s a bright coach and had success at many different levels, is going to be thinking who is going to be the best Captain to pull this team together to have an impact against Australia this time? He would have given that long consideration. He’s chosen Sam and is obviously in a much better position to choose Sam than anyone else because he’s seen him at many levels, and that’s a big vote of confidence from a smart Rugby coach,” says Eales.
“I think when you’re picking the Lions squad, or picking any squad, you pick the best squad of players and then you choose the Captain. When those guys come out here to tour they’re not going to be thinking ‘this is how Wales went against Australia 12 months ago’, they’re not going to be thinking ‘this is how England went at Twickenham six months ago’, what they’re going to be thinking about is that it’s a totally new team, it’s a totally new environment.”
Eales also believes Warburton’s style of captaincy, where words mean much more than actions, served him well when it came to Gatland’s decision.
“From the outside looking in, it’s always hard to understand exactly what’s happening in the team environment. It looks like he’s a guy that definitely leads by example when he gets out there. He talks a lot to his team, he gets in there and just does it himself. You can’t ask for more from a Captain.”
With the Captain playing at openside flanker, Eales is also excited for the potential match ups between Warburton and Australia’s openside candidates of Liam Gill, Michael Hooper and George Smith.
“We’ve got a great group of guys to choose from in the Number 7 jersey and whoever takes the field against Warburton, or whoever it might be, will be ready to do that. It’ll be a challenge from both sides, there’s nothing given, there’s nothing that’s a certainty from either end.”
Brian O’Driscoll
Eales shows no surprise when asked about the return of O’Driscoll 12 years after he wowed Australian crowds in 2001.
“(The Lions) always pick a mixture of youth and experience and there will be some guys who have been there and done that many times before; O’Driscoll is one of those guys,” says Eales.
“He was very young in 2001 but had a wonderful series and had a big impact on that series. Now he’s coming back again. I don’t think anyone would begrudge his selection.”
O’Driscoll’s selection is not just a case of on-field performance either.
“He’s going to be very important not only from a playing perspective. He more than holds his own as a player, but also very much from a leadership perspective and being able to bind that team together and learn the lessons of where they fell down in Australia in 2001 so they can be a more potent force back here this year.”
And when it comes to maturity there’s no argument from Eales that O’Driscoll has grown as a player.
“There’s no doubt he’s matured as a player. He’s been the best in the world in his position for a long period of time. Whether he is right now is probably debatable, and probably isn’t, but he’s still someone who has been there for that long and still has a lot to add to a touring party.”
Ultimately, Eales believes that regardless of when O’Driscoll is selected to play during the Tour, he will provide a uniting force for a group of men drawn together from four different nations. 
“They’ve got 37 men in this team, but all 37 can’t play in the Test matches. If he plays in the Test matches he’ll add his value there, but you’ve got to remember there’s a lot of other matches on the tour and he can add a lot of value in the tour matches, just as much as the Test matches. Success in the early matches can really lead to building a great team spirit, building a camaraderie that will lead them in well for the Test matches. I’m not surprised that they picked Brian.”
But what of the scars of 2001, will they be a factor for O’Driscoll or the team’s preparations?
“I don’t think the 2001 defeat will be much in the mind of the party at all,” Eales states.
“They might give a cursory glance to it but it’ll be no more than that because you’ve got to recognise that this is largely a brand new group of guys. It’s a group of guys with different experiences against Australia, some not so successful. A lot of the Welsh are coming back from a 3-0 defeat in Australia just last year, but it was a very close 3-0 defeat and so that will be more relevant.”
Jonny Wilkinson
Whilst O’Driscoll may be the fairy-tale selection, there’s no doubt the omission of Wilkinson is a major talking point, but Eales says it isn’t entirely unexpected. 
“I’m not really surprised Jonny Wilkinson hasn’t been included because he hasn’t played an integral part in the English team,” Eales says.
“I think it depends on what their tactics are and what they’re thinking. It would have been very tempting to bring Jonny along but I understand that they haven’t done that because they have a group of players who have been very consistent players for their national teams over a number of years. Jonny hasn’t had the same exposure at the top level as some of those other guys.”
Eales says the selections for flyhalf are justifiable, given those players’ recent performances.
“They’ve selected Owen Farrell, he’s been good over the last 12 months at least. He was one of the finalists for IRB International players of the Year and he had a very good season with the English team in the Six Nations, so it’s no surprise he’s been included,” says Eales.
“Maybe they would have included another specialist five eighth, you’ve got Sexton, you’ve got Farrell in that position, maybe they could have included someone else, maybe from the Welsh side.”
The breakdown of the squad
Finally, Eales says the breakdown of the squad and the dynamics established prior to the tour will play a big part, as the group is so diverse.
“I’ve only been on the other side of the fence, but I could imagine one of the most exciting things about a Lions Tour is actually being part of that bonding,” Eales says.
“When they get together in a few weeks’ time and they have that first game in Hong Kong against the Barbarians and then land in Perth, it’s about putting a team of players together that are used to playing against each other and developing those common bonds. It’s not an easy thing because they’re used to having this passion against each other. But if you get it right it can be a very powerful motivating force for the team and they’ll be doing everything they can to get that right.”
Eales has experienced the mix of cultures that can come with international Rugby, as he featured for invitational Barbarian sides in 1992, 1994 and 1995. 
“It’s always very exciting when you can mix with other guys because you get very used to your own system,” he says.
“When you have the opportunity to mix and match with guys who you’ve been playing against for so many years you can often learn so much more from those guys in one week than you can learn from guys you’ve played with for the last five years in that week. It’s a great opportunity to be excited about.”
Despite the obvious cultural subtleties within the squad, Eales believes the team will combine effectively behind their unified goal of defeating the Qantas Wallabies.
“There are definitely a lot of Welsh, there’s a big percentage in the team, but they did win the 6 Nations Championship so you’ve got to give them credit for that,” Eales says.
“Wales won the 6 Nations running away with a big margin against the next best team, England, so I think it’s good recognition for those guys. 
“I think Warren Gatland is a very experienced coach who is not going to make decisions on players because of favouritism. Now his reputation is on the line as much as the players, so he wants to pick the team that he trusts to be able to beat the Wallabies in a couple of months’ time.
In closing the winning captain from the 2001 Lions series imparted some strong words of wisdom for the Qantas Wallabies players and fans. 
“I think while everyone will focus on where (the players) come from now, very quickly they’ll become one team and that’s what Australia has to guard against,” Eales says.
“We’re defending against one team, we’re not defending against 15 Welsh, 10 Englishmen, 9 Irishmen and 3 Scots.”
And so with first part of the puzzle now in place, attention turns to the Qantas Wallabies and coach Robbie Deans, as he puts the finishing touches on his squad ahead of an announcement on Sunday 19 May.