By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – In the not too distant past, Kurtley Beale’s inclusion in a Wallabies squad would often ensure a steady stream of work for Rugby Australia’s crisis managers, but the 29-year-old livewire has now been tasked with repairing the team’s image.
Beale will start at flyhalf for the first time in four years when Australia meet South Africa in their Rugby Championship clash in Brisbane on Saturday, as coach Michael Cheika rolls the dice after back-to-back thrashings by the champion All Blacks.
A year out from the World Cup in Japan, the match at Lang Park has taken on greater significance than usual for Australian rugby, which is back in the doldrums after the Bledisloe Cup was surrendered meekly to New Zealand for a 16th straight year.
The Wallabies have lost six of their last seven matches and could slump to an unprecedented seventh in the world rankings if they lose to the Springboks, leaving Cheika under huge pressure.
Beale might seem an unlikely saviour, having been mostly deployed at inside centre or fullback during Cheika’s tenure, and never at flyhalf.
But with regular number 10 Bernard Foley low on confidence and trounced by his opposite number Beauden Barrett against the All Blacks, desperate times call for desperate measures.
“I thought Kurtley deserves an opportunity back in the 10 jersey,” Cheika said.
“He’s had it before and I think he’s matured a lot as a player and person and I certainly trust him to be in charge of the team there.”
Although the personnel around him have changed, a glance at the 76-cap utility’s record at flyhalf might beg the question of why he has not been used there more.
In his nine starts in the position, the Wallabies won four of their matches, lost three and drew twice against the All Blacks.
His last match at 10 under Cheika’s predecessor Ewen McKenzie was one to forget, however, a 50-21 humiliation by the All Blacks at Eden Park.
He shouldered much of the blame for that and was dumped to the bench, with Foley owning the position for the next four years.
It did not emerge until later that there was a schism in the camp, with Beale a key actor in a scandal that ended with McKenzie’s resignation.
Beale was accused of circulating “derogatory” text messages about the then-team manager Di Patston, who was recruited by McKenzie and shared a close relationship with the coach.
The saga ended with Patston and McKenzie both quitting, and Beale slapped with a heavy fine.
For a player with a record of indiscipline, who once punched his captain at the Melbourne Rebels among a slew of drunken incidents, many felt Beale lucky to retain his contract.
Despite his toxic brand, Beale was a favourite of Cheika’s at the New South Wales Waratahs, having helped them to a maiden Super Rugby title only months before.
The new Wallabies coach was quick to rehabilitate him and praised Beale for his “finishing” off the bench during their run to the final at the 2015 World Cup.
A stint overseas with English club Wasps and a serious knee injury have not stopped Beale from remaining a hugely important part of the Wallabies set-up.
Off the field, he has become a model player and featured prominently in a campaign for a local mental health foundation in July.
Against Springboks flyhalf Elton Jantjies, he will face off against another player desperate to prove himself in the pivotal position.
In a Wallabies side that seemed devoid of ideas against the All Blacks, Cheika will hope Beale can provide a spark of inspiration that lights the way to the World Cup.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by John O’Brien)