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At the sharp end of last week’s thrilling Bledisloe Cup match in Dunedin, Kurtley Beale was shown the door to the try-line by replacement All Black prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi, and duly sliced through between him and Sam Whitelock to score under the posts.
The try capped an outstanding match from Beale, where he not only built on the attacking threat shown in Sydney, but dominated the midfield battle with Sonny Bill Williams in what was the most assertive defensive performance in his career.
At 29-28 up with less than three minutes to play, Wallabies fans (and the Fox Sports rugby panel) dared to dream, even as the All Blacks re-gathered possession from the kick-off and mounted a last-gasp attack.
With the ball swung to the right it was Beale, in what was a solid and straight defensive line, who made a snap decision to turn in away from his man to make a spot tackle on Scott Barrett; one which might have killed the attack stone dead.
Barrett, however, has some of the softest and fastest hands in the business, and in the blink of an eye he shifted the ball on to Keiran Read, who strode through the space Beale had vacated. Two killer passes later and the Bledisloe Cup was once again lost for the Wallabies.
To pin the loss on this one poor read by Beale would be unfair and ignore other key moments that occurred during the game. But in turning in an instant, from hero to zero, there was no denying Beale’s influence on the Test match.
There is another reason why Beale is now the most important player in Australian – and New Zealand – rugby.
Entering its second generation since becoming professional, rugby is evolving in a way that concentrates elite-level activity in geographic areas where commercial opportunity and financial return is maximized. There is nothing surprising in this, the template has already been established by other professional sports, notably football, where global talent is mostly found in the richest leagues of England, Spain and Germany.
In recent years, rugby has experienced an increasing rate of ‘player drain’ from all of the southern hemisphere rugby nations to the leagues of the northern hemisphere; some to the Pro 12, but mostly to the English Premiership and French Top 14 and its lower divisions.
The 2016 New Zealand Rugby Almanac lists 354 players registered with overseas clubs. At the beginning of this year, the number of South Africans playing overseas also exceeded 350, including an astonishing 65 Springboks. For Australia, the number is said to be over 200.
Kurtley Beale was one of those players, having signed for Wasps and playing during the 2016-17 season after recovering from a knee injury sustained during 2016 Super Rugby.
But what makes Beale so important is what has happened since; the rare instance of a top-flight player swimming against the tide, returning to Australian rugby instead of deserting it.
Beale’s impact on the Wallabies in two matches has been immediate and obvious. He has his detractors, but the decline of the Wallabies since their second placing at the 2015 World Cup is testimony to a lack of elite player depth and the absence of experienced Test players like Beale.
With the NRC still at fledgeling status, the lack of an established domestic professional competition has led to an over-dependence on Super Rugby, and a situation where too many Australian players are exposed to top level rugby before they are truly ready – filling gaps in rosters opened up when more experienced and talented players moving overseas.
In a crude sense, Beale now playing in Australia means that an inferior player isn’t filling his slot for the Wallabies, and similarly, for the Waratahs in next season’s Super Rugby.
If that’s bad luck for Karmichael Hunt, Kyle Godwin, Billy Meakes, Irae Simone, David Horwitz, Bryce Hegarty or any youngster on the way up, that’s exactly the point – if Australian rugby wants to be winning Test and Super Rugby matches against New Zealand sides then it must have its best players on the park.
The appalling record of Australian Super Rugby sides over the past two seasons is cause for angst and anger in Australian rugby circles, with fans quick to single out player attitudes, coaching inadequacies and administrative incompetence as reasons.
But the real villain is the almighty dollar, with players lured away from Australia by the opportunity to earn substantial sums, and set themselves and their families up for a better future, post-retirement.
There are examples at every turn. When I visited the Clermont-Auvergne club earlier this year, John Ulugia and Sitaleki Timani were in the house, enjoying a weights session. They went on to play important roles in Clermont winning this year’s Top 14 and finishing runner-up in the European championship.
How much stronger would the Waratahs have been this year with their presence – noting Timani’s 53 Super Rugby appearances and 18 caps for the Wallabies?
The Wallabies’ best forward last week was flanker Sean McMahon; the same McMahon who is now leaving Australian rugby to play in Japan. Fans might argue the toss about his lack of height or where he sits alongside Michael Hooper and David Pocock, but surely nobody is suggesting that the Rebels and the Wallabies aren’t significantly weakened by his departure?
With experienced Test player Scott Fardy signing with Leinster, new Wallabies blindside flanker Ned Hanigan has not only been exposed to Test rugby with too few miles under his belt, but who now is the experienced mentor in the squad to tutor him in the dark arts of Test rugby?
With the Australian Rugby Union’s balance sheet resembling that of the Greek government, dark clouds potentially looming in the form of a costly civil war with Western Australia, and uncertainty around the value of future broadcasting rights, there is no prospect of Australia stemming the flow of players north through financial means alone.
But what the return of Beale, and also that of halfback Will Genia, shows, is that in certain circumstances, it is possible to judiciously target key players and convince them to return to play in Australia. In Beale’s case, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was an important influence; for Genia, club rugby in Paris being on the cusp of implosion was timely.
Note how Genia was another major contributor last week. What is critical is not just that these players return home, but that they deliver, and leverage their individual performance into improved outcomes for the Wallabies. This will help show other players overseas what they are missing out on.
While English and French clubs would have it otherwise, Test rugby retains primacy as the ultimate form of the game. If the financial disparity between offers from the northern hemisphere clubs and the ARU can be bridged via intangibles like playing Test rugby for a happy, successful Wallabies (with the prospect of a realistic tilt at the World Cup thrown in), and for Super Rugby franchises that actually win, then perhaps the player drain may be slowed.
In this respect, the ARU’s policy to select the Wallabies from domestic rugby only (‘Giteau’s Law’ exemptions excepted) is the correct one and must be retained for as long as possible.
The alternative is a continuation of the current situation where, even if the rate of players heading north slows, the quality of player targeted will increase. And without New Zealand’s conveyor belt of fresh talent to call upon, the only possible outcome will be more Wallabies and Super Rugby mediocrity.
Why then is Kurtley Beale important for New Zealand rugby? New Zealand has been considerably more successful than Australia in furnishing revenue streams through global sponsorship deals, but its main revenue source remains the value of SANZAAR’s broadcasting rights.
With South Africa now casting an eye northwards, an uncompetitive Australia serves to diminish the value of Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship to broadcasters. Without sufficient revenue accruing from these broadcast rights, New Zealand and Australian rugby, if they don’t go broke first, will eventually cede control of all of their best players to the richer clubs, who don’t have the responsibility and costs associated with administering all of rugby.
New Zealand rugby has recently entered into a new commercial arrangement with Amazon that, in the short term, will see production of an eight-part documentary to enhance the global presence and commercial value of the All Blacks’ brand.
More crucially, it is Amazon’s entry into the broadcasting rights space that will provide competitive tension and underpin the next round of negotiations for SANZAAR’s rugby offerings, which are likely to begin next year. The permutations around a non-traditional, non-TV player obtaining rugby rights is a topic for another day; suffice to say that, whatever potential problems arise, these will be more than offset by the financial injection for both unions.
But even if New Zealand is able to engineer an outcome where they can pay more of their best players salaries to match the north, they still need to have someone competitive to play against.
Last week’s Bledisloe Cup match showed how the spark, tension and theatre that has been missing from trans-Tasman rugby can easily be regained when the skill level is high, the contest is willing and genuinely competitive, and the result is in doubt until the final minute.
It is now up to Beale and the rest of the Wallabies to ensure that this performance is not an outlier, but is the basis on which Australian rugby can begin to restore respect and pride.
If this triggers the return of other experienced players who want a piece of the action, Beale will have done a fine job for both Australian and New Zealand rugby.