Some marquee players fail to make a mark, others live up to their marque; a few add to their reputations, like Kurtley Beale this season. When Wasps signed the Australian back last summer, with the option of a second year, they were taking on a player whose temperament was threatening to flat-line his career at the point he should have been nearing his peak.
His debut was delayed until December because of an injury he sustained in Australia and he has only played 16 matches for Wasps – 11 in the Premiership and five in the European Champions Cup – but he has packed into half a season what others take years to do. His impact can be measured in his performance against Saracens at the Ricoh Arena last weekend when he returned to full-back after three matches at inside-centre.
The champions may have been some way below full strength, but that normally makes little difference to their defence. Beale got in behind them in the opening minutes in that typically deceptive way of his, appearing to invite contact and pumping his legs as David Campese used to do before shimmying into space, all balance and timing. In an age when coaches talk about the need to earn the right to go wide and how hard it is to break down defences, Beale is evidence that no matter how the game has evolved in 22 years of professionalism, with its emphasis on strength and stamina, there is still a place for the craftsman.
Wasps effectively operated with three playmakers: Beale, wearing No15 but roaming in attack and exploiting the tiniest crack in the defensive line, Jimmy Gopperth and Danny Cipriani. After losing to Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final, an afternoon when Beale struggled to get into the game, Cipriani was dropped to the bench with Gopperth moving to outside-half and Beale taking over from him at 12.
Beale saw more of the ball, but was less of a counterattacking threat. The balance was better offensively against Saracens with Cipriani comfortable going to the line against opponents who rush up – he created one try with a neat chip near the line for Thomas Young to pick up and score – but Cipriani is a target in defence. Schalk Burger hunted him down at the weekend, knocking the outside-half down but not out as he kept coming back for more, but Wasps are a side that put scoring ahead of not conceding.
It is one reason the winner of the play-off semi-final between Exeter and Saracens at Sandy Park is regarded as the favourite to win the Premiership final at the end of the month. Breaking down a Sarries side that lacked its usual reinforcements on the bench is one thing, but will they do it against opponents who are fortified and when the stakes are higher?
Wasps have Beale and in his current form, that makes them all the more dangerous, adding to the wiles of Cipriani, the firm grasp of the basics possessed by Gopperth, the fizz of Elliot Daly, the gas of Christian Wade and the dash of Willie le Roux.
What Wasps must retain in their semi-final against Leicester is the attitude they had on Saturday, competing hard in the set pieces, winning the battle on the floor and, most tellingly, coming out on top in the collisions.
Beale has added to a side that was already the most dangerous in the Premiership in broken play. He always has time, kicks adroitly and senses opportunity, but what marks him out is his ability to detect space that does not appear to exist. He is not taking up the option of the second year at Wasps and he will be a significant loss to the Premiership: his stay has been too short for him to be considered a candidate for the best overseas signing, but he is a player every league needs, blessed with rare ability and a strong work ethic.
He will be back in Australia, looking to regain his place in the national squad. And he should be playing international rugby, the arena where he belongs and one that has proved more tempting than the reported £750,000 a year he is being paid by Wasps. His passage to England came about after a serious of incidents off the field: punching a team-mate on a coach when he was with the Rebels in Melbourne; being pictured at a burger bar at 4am three days before the second Test between the Wallabies and the Lions in 2013 – Beale’s slip as he was about to kick a late penalty cost Australia the first match in the series – and sending an offensive text message to Australia’s then business manager Di Patston in 2014 that resulted in his being fined and the national head coach, Ewen McKenzie, resigning.
Beale had a largely walk-on role in the 2015 World Cup and the move abroad has proved therapeutic. He has made headlines only on the field, his play has been exceptional and his return to Australia two years before the World Cup gives the game there a badly needed boost. The Wallabies’ head coach, Michael Cheika, sees Beale as a 12 with Israel Folau installed at full-back and with the scheming Bernard Foley at 10, the three would function in the same threatening way that Beale does with Gopperth and Cipriani in the Premiership.
In the 2000s, when Shaun Edwards was at Wasps, the club regarded itself as a home for lost souls, a place of rehabilitation for those who had taken a wrong turning. Beale’s signing has been a success for him and the Premiership, and his time in England is not quite done. See him while you can.
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