It’s been a long and difficult road back from injury for Kurtley Beale in 2022, but after being recalled to the Wallabies’ squad for a Bledisloe Cup series that looms as the best chance in years to get the trophy back in Australian hands, the 31-year old seems to have timed his return perfectly.
Beale suffered a serious hamstring injury playing for French Top 14 club Racing 92 in February.
While he wasn’t deemed fit enough to vie for the fullback spot during the Wallabies’ nightmare injury run to begin The Rugby Championship, Dave Rennie has backed in the veteran to be right for his first Tests since last year’s Spring Tour, naming him in the 36-man squad for two crunch tests against a vulnerable All Blacks.
“The hammy’s feeling good – I’m back to top speed,” Beale told media on Saturday.
“I’ve been training pretty hard since being back from Paris, doing a bit of work at the Waratahs previously – maybe a good six weeks of high intensity training.
“I got invited to participate in the group leading up into the South African Tests – kind of finding my feet, still chipping away on my fitness.
“I feel ready, and just really excited to be back in the group. We’ve got a big challenge this week against the ABs: the focus will be on just trying to pour all our good, positive energy into trying to get the right result.”
Rennie had never given up on the versatile Beale playing a role for the Wallabies in 2022 despite the early setback, with the 95-Test veteran in constant contact with the coach throughout.
“About 5-6 months I was out for – I had a good chat with Dave, and just put a plan together,” Beale said.
“Eight weeks down the track, here I am, and [‘m] just really excited to be here.”
With Beale expected to make it to the 23 for the first Test against the All Blacks in Melbourne on Thursday, the main point of debate for selectors (and fans) will be his position.
Beale slotted in at fullback for Tests against England and Wales on last year’s Spring Tour: while he is expecting to play there again at AAMI Park, he understands his ability to play multiple roles, in particular starring at 10 and 12 for racing, is a major reason behind his recall.
“Back end of the Spring Tour, I played 15 – I filled in there for a few injuries in that position,” Beale said.
“[I’m expecting to play] mostly outside backs, but in Paris I’ve been slotting in at 12 position, 10 position. I guess my versatility kind of helps me in those areas as well.
“I think mainly here in this group, it would be [with] the outside backs, I’m assuming – fullback.
“The key message for me from Dave is to just make sure that I’m sharp, pretty straight, simple. But I understand what he wants me to be – he wants to make sure I’ve got the speed, the agility, that I once had.
“After a long injury, it’s important that I’m confident in my ability to be able to display that.”
Beale returns to a more battle-hardened Wallabies line-up than the inexperienced side that lost both Tests in his last stint in the gold jersey last year.
Fraser McReight has slotted into Michael Hooper’s number seven jersey with aplomb, while Hunter Paisami, Len Ikitau and Noah Lolesio all have a further year’s experience under their belts.
The improvement is something Beale has already noticed since re-joining the group.
“Obviously [from] last year, there’s been a lot of growth,” he said.
“I think a lot of guys are now playing back-to-back Test matches, growing a lot of experience. In terms of the group, they’re growing their knowledge of the game and experience – I think that’s a huge factor that I’ve observed from the sidelines.
“That’s a huge positive: it’s a good sign for a group to be going in the right direction. There have been some big learning curves along the way, some good wins and some tough losses, but again, it’s all part of the experience at this level.
“I think it’s only going to help us be in a good position later on in the year, and going on into a World Cup year. We’re on a good track here, a steady track.”
Redemption from a disappointing 8-24 loss to the Springboks will be a key focus for the Wallabies, with the team twice torn to shreds in consecutive second Tests against Argentina and then the Boks to throw away excellent performances in the series openers.
While the All Blacks have faced plenty of scrutiny over their form, including home losses to Ireland (twice) and Argentina, the shortened Bledisloe fixture means the Wallabies can’t lose either of the two Tests to see the Cup change hands; and according to Beale, Ian Foster’s team remain the most prized of scalps.
“I think the greater motivation now is to play the ABs, to test ourselves against one of, or the best team in the world,” Beale said.
“It’s a huge challenge for us. Coming into the camp yesterday, a lot of the guys are keen to rip in and make sure we’re focussed, and putting in all our energy to put in a special performance in Melbourne.”
Speaking of the Wallabies’ form fluctuation in recent times, Beale said finding consistency was top of the agenda for the team, from coaching staff to the players themselves.
“It’s kind of been a bit of a trend for the Wallabies, hasn’t it?” Beale said of the struggle to back up strong performances.
“We tend to, after a break or a bit of time off, come back and really attack the first game. But playing Test match rugby, the challenge is to back that performance up, making sure you’re physically and mentally ready.
“Usually the opposition, whether that be Argentina or South Africa, you’re poking the bear there a bit. So the second Test match is always going to be a huge challenge.
“Credit to South Africa: they are the world champions, they were always going to come back the following week and put in a special performance.
“We’ve just got to make sure that we get better this week. We did some review this morning and the guys understood that there were a lot of opportunities that were missed [against the Springboks].
“The focus will be about making sure that we’re connected, that we’re realising the opportunities, and just restore that confidence in each other.
“Having that belief in our systems, and going out there and delivering that… that’ll be the big challenge this week.”
Beale refused to confirm his selection in the 23 for Thursday night’s Test, insisting that he’ll be aiming to be the best teammate possible should he miss the cut.
“I’m just making sure that I’m doing all I can to be ready,” he said.
“I feel ready now, so if given an opportunity, I’ll make sure that I’ll put my best foot forward, but if not, I’ll just keep grinding away, helping around the team, making sure the 23 that are selected are ready and firing to go.
“Using that experience that I’ve had in the past, helping a lot of the guys in front of me make sure that they’re ready. Hopefully that support can help them be better in their preparations, and confident to go out there and get the job done.”
Beale isn’t the only one with a point to prove against the All Blacks – in-form back-rower Rob Valetini is relishing the chance to don the gold for the first time in his home state.
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Valetini is one of the rare Wallabies to hail from Melbourne, having represented Victoria in state rugby and attending Westall Secondary Cottage in the south-east of the city.
For the 24-year old, playing at AAMI Park on Saturday will be a dream come true.
“I think the last Test I went to there was when the Wallabies came down to play Ireland [in 2018], so I was there watching that,” Valetini said.
“But actually being on the field in the place of your birth, in front of friends and family in a city that I love dearly, would be unreal and something I’ll never forget.”
Rugby – The Roar