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With the countdown to the Rugby Championship underway and the return of Kurtley Beale from England on a promise from Michael Cheika that he will play a more senior role in the Wallabies team, there is speculation rife about which position he is likely to occupy.
Michael Cheika has recently indicated that he considers 12 to be Beale’s best position, which lends itself to questions about what that means for the makeup for the rest of the team.
The key issue is that while Beale is an outstanding attacking player, he is not a strong defender. Aside from being a poor tackler who is often covered in the midfield by another player such as Rob Horne from the wing, the problem that I have seen with him is that he just doesn’t have good defensive awareness.
Beale’s attention seems to switch on when his team has the ball, when the opposition has it he becomes distracted and hesitant and he certainly doesn’t take a defensive organisation role like Matt Giteau did so effectively for the Wallabies in 2015.
Beale’s weakness in defence was aptly demonstrated in defence during the World Cup final in 2015, when he replaced Giteau was who had been concussed. All three All Black tries were scored after Giteau was sent off and Beale had a role in two and possibly three of them.
In the first try by Nehe Milner-Skudder, Beale was in the position to rush up on Conrad Smith to shut down the overlap, but instead appeared to panic and did not attempt to tackle anybody.
In the second try by Ma’a Nonu, the Wallabies midfield had broken apart under an offloading assault by Sonny Bill Williams, probably because Giteau was not there to organise. Beale standing back at fullback was completely wrong footed in a one on one contest Nonu, who had run through the gaps.
In the third try Ben Smith had picked up a dropped ball from Drew Mitchell, run and kicked ahead for Beauden Barrett to score at the other end. Beale, who had passed to Mitchell, can be seen jogging at the bottom of the screen, instead of chasing hard when he was not so far behind that as a fast man, catching Barrett was out of the question.
Personally I think that substituting Beale for Giteau so early in the game was the biggest mistake that Cheika made in that World Cup, because he had a good defender who is also no slouch in attack in Matt Toomua on the bench. That is history now, but what we can do however is learn from the mistake.
However, Cheika appears to be headed towards making it again.
What starting Beale at 12 would mean is that Karmichael Hunt, who demonstrated very strong defensive and offensive credentials in the position during the June Test series, would probably be left on the bench.
It would also mean that another player, most likely a winger, would need to be selected based on their ability to defend in the midfield. The only player who I can think of who would fit the bill as a decent winger and a strong defender, is Reece Hodge.
I rate Hodge highly, but I don’t know that as a young player, he has the presence of Hunt to fill the desperately needed role of midfield defensive organiser. I also think that Hodge is the perfect ‘finisher’, he can play any role from ten to 15 and therefore may be best employed off the bench this season.
Finally, when teams counterattack from the turnover – which is when the All Blacks are most dangerous – Beale would be opposite monster centres like Sonny Bill Williams and Nganai Laumape. Not good.
So what would the Wallabies really gain by running Beale instead of Hunt at 12? I can’t see how any gains in attack would offset the defensive losses. To me Beale’s skill set would be best utilised as an outside back. With Folau being a shoe in for the 15 jersey, to me that suggests that Beale should be competing with Dane Haylett-Petty for the wing position.
Beale is fast and has a good kicking game, which Cheika clearly values in a winger to help Folau, whose kicking game isn’t great.
However, where Beale really outshines Haylett-Petty is in his attacking instincts, which were demonstrated aptly from the wing when he replaced Rob Horne in the World Cup pool match against England.
Despite not often playing on the wing, Beale instinctively knew how to call the attacking move and rove inwards, to set up Bernard Foley for his try. I can’t think of a Wallabies winger who was that intuitively creative since Campese, and I think that is where Beale best fits if he is to start with the Wallabies this year.