Back in the early years of a new millennium, then-London club Wasps was regarded as a rehabilitation centre for rugby players who had lost their way in the game.
Countless misfits and outcasts found their way to Sudbury in North-West London and found a new lease of life in their playing careers.
When Kurtley Beale signed a £750,000 per year contract to move to England for the 2016-17 season, he was hardly on his ‘uppers’. After all, he was an established Australian international who had helped his country to the World Cup final only one year before.
But Beale had been playing at inside centre for his Super Rugby team, the Waratahs, and Wasps had bought him as a replacement for Charles Piutau, the All Black star in the back three.
In the event, it took only three starts at number 12 to convince the Wasps coaching staff that Beale belonged at fullback – and that is the position in which he went on to find considerable success during his stint in England.
As a Wasp, Beale was one of the ‘marquee’ players in the premiership (world-class imports who are excluded from the salary cap) who notably did live up to the mark, and more. When he left to come back to Australia, only one season into a contract with a second-year option, it was with the warm well wishes of the Wasps supporters, rather than harsh criticisms ringing in his ears.
What made his career at the club tick over with such a healthy heartbeat was the arrangement in the inside backs. Wasps had two natural outside-halves at 10 and 12 in the shape of mercurial Danny Cipriani and Kiwi Jimmy Gopperth, and that allowed Kurtley to move back into the position in which he feels most comfortable, but with the luxury of knowing he would be seeing a lot more of the ball than usual.
Wasps were at their best creating attacking tempo off turnovers and playing the ball fast and wide, and at the time they were very much the exception to the English rule.
Back in Australia, England was proved right. Beale’s role as the incumbent Wallaby number 12 was increasingly questioned as he struggled to come to terms with the suffocating physical demands of the position. Moreover, the experimental move to number 10 in the middle of the Rugby Championship failed.
The controversy surrounding Israel Folau’s comments on social media, and the subsequent cancellation of his contract with Rugby Australia, may have opened up the best path forward for Kurtley Beale at exactly the right moment in his career.
His return to his favourite position has been enabled at the Waratahs by the acquisition of a cast-off (Karmichael Hunt), which would have brought a nostalgic gleam to any Wasps’ supporter’s eye. That Hunt was reclaimed from the Tahs’ bitterest rivals in Queensland would only have added to the piquancy of the situation.
Hunt has been playing at 12, while Bernard Foley remains a constant at 10, and Folau’s absence has allowed Beale to shift back to 15. It is a perfect arrangement for the kind of full-width attacking game traditionally preferred in New South Wales.
Three years after his experience in England, it seems that the stars have aligned favourably once again for Kurtley Beale to rehabilitate himself, just in time for the World Cup in Japan. Even the blackest of political clouds may turn out to have a silver lining on the playing front after all.
The weekend derby between the Reds and the Waratahs illustrated the positive boost the move to fullback has given Beale and the team as a whole.
The attacking width granted by the connection between Foley, Hunt and Beale was flagged up right from the very start of the game:
It’s straightforward passing from right to left, but it’s all in front of the receiver, it gains 35 effortless metres and it plays Michael Hooper into the game in the wide channels. That all makes a lot of sense.
The ability to stretch a defence across the full width of the field, and to be able to do it to both sides equally well, is a very valuable commodity in a game where defences want to push as far as they can upfield in a straight line, without moving sideways.
In this instance, Foley, Hunt and Beale are all passing off the left hand towards the right sideline, and once again the deliveries are exemplary.
The final pass by Beale is one to savour – an end-over-end ‘six o’clock’ pass which requires no adjustment in the hands and brings winger Alex Newsome hard and flat onto the ball. The lesson is clear: end-over-end passing facilitates quick hands when you need to shift the ball on in one movement.
The second phase in the sequence reveals just how far the Reds’ defence has been pulled out of shape in the space of one phase, by straightforward, high quality passing to the sideline:
When Bernard Foley cross-kicks back to the left, Queensland halfback Tate McDermott is desperately scurrying over to cover the threat of Michael Hooper, who has remained in the wide left channel for just this eventuality. Hooper was unlucky not to collect the ball and convert the score.
The threat of width is enough to loosen line spacings on the inside of a defensive structure too:
The presence of Beale outside Foley attracts the attention of both gesturing number 14 Jock Campbell and number 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia. They are pulled too far across the field to protect the inside line when Foley makes his cut.
Later in the same half, Beale was able to cut back inside an over-pursuing line to score the Waratahs’ second try of the match (at 1:50 on the reel).
The most pertinent example of all occurred off a prolonged kick return in the second period:
Beale’s first instinct after catching the ball is to look for space and exploit the full width of the field, and this is the main reason why the back three suits him so much better than inside centre.
The usual suspects are immediately engaged on the play, with Hooper and Hunt getting the ball wide as quickly as possible until the Tahs establish a position deep in the Queensland 22.
The play coming back the other way is almost a mirror image of the initial phase, but this time with Beale appearing at first receiver (and delivering another delightful end-over-end pass off his left hand) and Foley rather than Hunt batting the ball on in one motion to the wing outside him:
New South Wales eventually converted the opportunity into a score (at 4:20 on the highlight reel).
Beale’s enjoyment of the extra space in the backfield was palpable throughout. The chip and gather over the oncoming chase is one skill Israel Folau never mastered.
The one area of concern remains the same as it always has been – Beale’s ability to plug holes as the last line of defence:
Could Kurtley have left Samu Kerevi to Cam Clark and stayed out on Jock Campbell? Probably.
Do we want our fullback to be bounced ten metres back on his heels after contact with an opposition wing? Maybe not, although Beale did make the stop, by hook or by crook.
Could the Waratahs fullback have made a better fist of defending the diagonal grubber? For sure.
But with all the black clouds hanging over Australian rugby and the Wallabies’ ex-fullback, it is good to watch his likely replacement freed to revel in the innocent pleasures of the game; to watch a re-energised Kurtley Beale, playing with a smile on his face. For now, that will do.
It only took London Wasps three games to discover Kurtley Beale was not a natural number 12 in the European game. After that, he settled as a ‘marquee’ fullback, and a very good one at that. Wasps were sorry to lose him after only one season.
The stars have aligned in such a way that Beale will once be considered in what is his best position for the Wallabies, in a World Cup year to boot.
With Beale freed to be a fullback instead of being shoe-horned into inside centre, there is every chance for a proper defender to be selected in that position – whether it is Reece Hodge, or Karmichael Hunt, or Samu Kerevi or Matt Toomua. Maybe then, the musical chairs will finally become a relic of the past.
With Foley, Hunt and Beale in harness together, the Waratahs have three good distributors who can cover the full width of the field in either direction on the pass. They are particularly good on left-to-right movements with Hunt’s long rolled deliveries complemented by Beale’s accurate end-over-end passing game off his left hand.
The Wallabies also have the opportunity to provide more immediate width to their attack, paradoxically in the absence of their best attacker in the outside backs, Israel Folau.
It may seem strange to say that Australia will be better off without one of its undoubted world-class players, but that’s just the way it may turn out, both on and off the field.