For the last seven decades of watching and covering rugby, there have been five outstanding schoolboys who have shone like beacons – Ken Catchpole, Brian Allsop, Jim Lenehan, Mark Ella, and Kurtley Beale.
The first time I saw “Catchy”, we were 12. He was halfback for Coogee Prep, I was five-eighth for Mosman Prep, and Ken either had the ball in hand making inroads, was within sniffing distance of the ball for a pass, or was defending the line vigorously for a little bloke – for the entire game.
He was the complete package.
Midway through the second half he had his left ear severed from the top to the lobe, and his Dad was understandably on the field in a flash.
“No Dad, where’s the sticky tape? Strap it on, and we’ll go to the hospital after the game,” was the “Catchy” suggestion that gave a very early insight into the determination and courage he was to show as a Wallaby.
He popped up again at The Scots College in the first XV in 1955, 1956 and 1957 as the outstanding halfback in the GPS competition, and created history on his Wallaby debut against Fiji at 21 years and 354 days when he was appointed not only captain, but coach as well.
To this day “Catchy” is still the greatest halfback I’ve seen from any country.
“Slopsy” was a winger from Sydney High in 1954, as well as the GPS and CHS track sprint champion, he could sure motor.
He beat opposition defence through sheer speed, and snappy footwork, but caused a major stink when he switched to rugby league after leaving school, that wasn’t the done thing.
Allsop was an immediate sensation for Eastern Suburbs, scoring 18 tries in his first season from 17 games, including five against Parramatta.
In a career of 154 games for Easts and Manly, he crossed for 95 tries.
Lenehan at St Ignatius College in 1856 was a fullback colossus at 188cm and 89kgs, with speed and strength as you would expect from the GPS hurdling and shot put champion.
His attack was awesome, his defence of a runaway Sherman tank, and he boasted a prodigious left boot.
In his first year out of school, he cruised into the 1957 Wallaby tour of Britain, Ireland, France and North America playing 32 of the 41 games, scoring the most points with 114, and the most tries 13 – “Big Jim” was an ironman as well as you would expect from a country boy from Wagga Wagga.
That was the start of his stellar Wallaby career that lasted a decade.
Ella came from Matraville High where, in 1977, the ESP on the field between him and his fullback twin brother Glen, and his younger outside centre brother Gary became legendary.
“Makella”, as the Fijians called him, was mercurial. How he managed to ghost past defences that looked impregnable from the press box will always remain a mystery.
But he did it so consistently I once wrote he’d find a way through the front door of Fort Knox.
Sadly his Wallaby career was far too short, hanging up his boots at 25 with just 25 caps. but he did bow out on an historic high by scoring tries in all four internationals when the Wallabies claimed their only Grand Slam in 1984.
Mark Ella is still the greatest flyhalf I’ve ever seen.
And that leaves Kurtley James Beale.
I first saw him as a spindly head-geared flyhalf at 15 in the St Josephs College first XV, the biggest school nursery for Wallabies with Joeys providing 65.
He was so good it made me blink in amazement.
How could one so young play with such composure to pick up loose passes, beat the opposition with deft footwork and sheer speed, kick, chase and regather so consistently well, and have rugby vision way beyond his years?
He was the hot knife, the opposition the butter, he sliced them at regular intervals.
So much so he was regularly invited to Waratah training sessions at 15, before signing with the ‘Tahs at 16. He was also captain of both the Joeys first XV and the Australian Schoolboys, in his third year in both.
At 17, Beale was invited to Wallaby training camps and he was well on the way to a glittering international career, doing what he did best as an attacking unit beyond the norm.
There would be many highlights, such as the booming penalty goal from 55 metres out in 2010 to beat South Africa on the bell, ending a 47-year drought on the Highveld, and a first win at Bloemfontein since 1933.
Winning the coveted John Eales Medal in 2011 was another highlight, as was his input to the Waratahs that ended a 19-year drought when the men in blue won their only Super Rugby title in 2014.
But the brilliant consistency wasn’t always there, and I put it down to the lack of consistent positional selections by his coaches.
He’s played under Waratah coaches Ewen McKenzie, Chris Hickey, Michael Cheika and Daryl Gibson, and Wallaby coaches Robbie Deans, McKenzie and Cheika and between them they have shunted Beale between flyhalf, inside centre, wing, and fullback.
At various times alcohol surfaced, plus an ugly confrontation with team official Di Patston, while the combination of the Three Amigos of Beale, Quade Cooper and James O’Connor riled administrators.
Overall, Kurtley Beale has always been a key player, but he needed to feel at home.
Two seasons with the Rebels wasn’t a good decision, but the two seasons with Wasps was, and now he’s back with the Waratahs for a third stint.
But the Waratahs won’t beat the Rebels in their vital clash at the SCG tonight unless Beale fires.
It’s time for the real Beale to return.
Yet he’s been selected at fullback to replace the stood-down Israel Folau, and will have to impose himself into the backline to make an impact.
It would have been so much easier at 12, but Gibson has gone for Karmichael Hunt.
Beale is not a rugby nomad, he deserves stability like the majority of his teammates.
Put the 12 on his back, and let him cut loose.
The Waratahs will benefit for the rest of their Super Rugby campaign, so will the Wallabies at the World Cup.