A star is born: the bloodlines behind Jeral Skelton's impressive rise

Mens - Sydney
by Iain Payten

What would happen if you created a Frankenstein footballer with the physicality of Will Skelton and the evasiveness of Peter Betham?

Look no further than new Aussie sevens sensation Jeral Skelton, who shares close bloodlines - and athletic traits - with both of those Wallabies.

The Australian men’s sevens team weren’t able to defend their Sydney7s title in 2019 but the silver lining in a close-but-no-cigar campaign was the emergence of Skelton as a future star of Aussie rugby.

Continuing on from some strong form in Hamilton a week earlier, Skelton was arguably Australia’s best in Sydney and his two-try performance against France in the 5th-placed semi-final – which secured the win - was a perfect display of his immense potential.

Though only 19 and still so young he carries the team mascot, Skelton’s powerful ball-running and muscular defence not only has Aussie sevens coaches excited but Super Rugby and Wallabies officials watching on keenly too.

The Brisbane-raised Skelton debuted for the Australia under Andy Friend in Cape Town as an 18-year in 2017, and was in and out of the squad in 2018.

But after winning a recall for the Hamilton leg last weekend, Skelton has showed a strength and maturity beyond his years.

His DNA may have something to do with it.

Skelton is cousins with both Will Skelton and Betham, although he’s never actually met giant ex-Wallabies and NSW lock Will.

“I am cousins with Will but I have never met him. We are second cousins,” Skelton told RUGBY.com.au.

“I have met his parents but we’ve never met. We’ve spoken via social media.

Will Skelton has signed with the ARU for another two years. Photo: Getty Images"I am closer to Pete. We are first cousins and I used to stay with Peter’s parents when I first moved down (to Sydney), they helped me a lot.”

Skelton already appears to play above his 95kg, and Aussie rugby officials believe he’ll get bigger as he gets older.

Not Will Skelton, 135kg-big though, Jeral says.

“Not at this stage no! In sevens I have to stay at my weight,” he said.

“At the moment I am with the sevens they are trying to get me to bulk up a bit and get to 100kg but as a few years pass and I have a look at maybe playing 15s, I may have to put on more weight.”

Australian fifteens coaches are duly keeping a close eye on the former schoolboy backrower but before that will come the Olympic Games campaign in sevens.

Skelton is contracted in sevens through to the end of 2020.

The confidence on display in the last few weeks from Skelton is a simple matter of self-belief, he said.

“When I first started, I was nervous and got intimidated when I had to run the ball,” he said.

“But as the years have gone past I have got more comfortable on the field and it feels more comfortable, and the boys are happy with me taking it and running. The boys make it easy for me. They put me into space and I just back myself to get through the line and try and get to the line.”

Australian coach Tim Walsh says Skelton’s potential is enormous, and with much of it still to be realised.

“He bounces around like an NBA player and he has an array of skills that really suits sevens,” Walsh said.

“He is a jack of all trades and becoming a master of a few of them, too. He is learning the game and really starting to produce some world-class performances.”

There’s nothing a coach likes more than a teenager who relishes the tough stuff in contact, and on the evidence of Sydney and Hamilton, Skelton is already becoming a go-to man in a tight spot for the Aussie team, when a tackle bust and break is needed

“He has a really good balance, because when he hits they stay hit and when he runs, he is drawing in two or three defenders and then he has some basketball-like skills to use there. He has a big future,” Walsh said.

“We’re all about winning and also making rugby players better and accelerating their careers.

“I have spoken to many people around Rugby Australia about just what Jeral Skelton can be. The world will be oyster I suspect.”

Skelton wasn’t the only rookie to show his talent after getting a second chance in Hamilton.

Pocket dynamo Josh Coward, who joined the Aussie squad in 2016 before being axed in 2017, debuted in New Zealand and turned in several eye-catching cameos.

His form in Sydney was excellent, too, and Coward directly contributed to Australia beating South Africa in the pool stages and making the finals. He scored a try and then helped turn the ball over for Nick Malouf’s late try.

An ankle injury suffered in the quarter-final against Fiji was a downer for Coward, though, and he will be in doubt for the next leg in Las Vegas.