Kurtley Beale could hold the key to a last-ditch Super Rugby finals bid by the embattled NSW Waratahs.
Another humbling home defeat – a 40-33 loss to the Blues on Saturday night – after they’d trailed by 28 points with never enough time to overhaul the Aucklanders – leaves the Waratahs with a miserable 3-7 record and 13th overall .
But they are still just a win behind Australian conference leaders the Brumbies with six rounds remaining.
The Brumbies could stretch that advantage with a home win next weekend, when the Waratahs have a bye before resuming against the Melbourne Rebels.
However, the Brumbies face a rampant Lions outfit, runners-up last year and chasing an eighth straight victory, and should they lose to the South Africans the Waratahs would remain very much in the playoffs chase.
Even more so with Beale back in a sky blue jumper following his season in England.
Beale starred overnight as Wasps clinched top spot and and a home semi-final in the English Premiership with a 35-15 victory over Saracens, leaving his London side on track to make the title match on May 27.
Such a scenario would rule the classy playmaker out of the Waratahs’ hosting of the Rebels and the round-15 trip to Hamilton to tackle the Chiefs on June 3.
But he could conceivably be available to play the Jaguares in Sydney and Western Force in Perth in the final two rounds, matches that could prove decisive in the battle for Australian conference honours.
Tellingly, both fixtures aren’t scheduled until July, after a break in the competition for the June Test matches, by which time Beale should be well settled back in Sydney.
Beale wouldn’t be eligible for the finals, should the Waratahs scrape in, and coach Daryl Gibson has previously said he was “unlikely” to feature in this campaign.
That could all change, though, if his side’s season is on the line heading into last two home-and-away rounds.
Gibson on Saturday said he hadn’t given any more thought to trying to coax Beale into returning for the Tahs before next season.
“I’m unaware of his situation and whether that’s changed,” he said.
The coach was considerably more forthright when asked if the Waratahs even deserved to be still in the finals mix.
“We’re certainly in the fight for it. Whether we’re worthy is up to the next five games,” Gibson said.
“And certainly we haven’t given up, if that’s what you’re suggesting.
“There’s enough fight in this team to know we’re still in it and we’re going to approach it that way and keep playing that way.”
While bewildered about the Waratahs continually giving sides big head starts in matches, skipper Michael Hooper is also keeping the faith.
“We’re able to play some really good rugby against top sides and we’ve done that in a couple of games this season,” Hooper said.
“So it’s frustrating, and even more frustrating when you go to the review room and you see players doing great things and the team working together and then, on the flip side of that, the total opposite.”