Kurtley Beale has made a habit of unsettling Australia’s rugby suits, and he was at it again this week with the news that he is about to sign off on a massive £1.5m two-year deal with Wasps which will make him one of the best paid players in the world.
However, it leaves the ARU in the uncomfortable position of seeing another of their star players up sticks in his prime for greater Northern Hemisphere coin, while being able to enjoy the best of both worlds and still play for Australia if, like Beale, they have won 60 caps or more.
Beale is a hugely talented player who has the skills and adaptability to play almost anywhere in the backline apart from scrum-half, but past history suggests he is also a package that comes with the label ‘Handle With Care’ due to off-field disciplinary issues.
Beale is seen by Wasps as a ready-made replacement for Charles Piutau. All Black wing/full-back Piutau, who has helped to transform them into the most electrifying attacking side in Europe since the start of the season, is part of a Wasps coup in which they made the two club signings of the season, with the evergreen George Smith the other.
Wasps tried to persuade Piutau, 25, to stay but he feels duty-bound to honour a commitment to join Ulster this summer, with a contract in the region of £400,000 a year agreed.
As for Beale, the £1.5m question is whether he can add to the Wasps backline matrix as successfully as Piutau. Beale’s 2015 World Cup form for the Wallabies suggests that if the gifted 27-year-old playmaker is as focused as he was under Michael Cheika’s coaching then Wasps will be cooking again next season.
However, the cautionary footnote stems from a series of incidents involving Beale, including his role in the texting scandal surrounding Wallaby team manager Di Patston two years ago. This eventually led to her resignation and precipitated Ewen McKenzie’s exit as Wallaby coach.
It also relates to Beale teaming up with Danny Cipriani and members of the so-called Aussie ‘brat-pack’ at the Melbourne Rebels. At the time dedication to the cause did not always appear to be top of the agenda. Beale was banned by the Rebels management on a number of occasions for breaking alcohol curfews, and in 2013 was fined over £20,000 and flown back to Australia for fighting with team-mates Cooper Vuna and Gareth Delve during a tour of South Africa.
He was then photographed at 3.50am in a fast-food restaurant with Wallaby and Rebels team-mate James O’Connor and a Lions fan a few days before the second Test of the 2013 series in Melbourne.
Given that Cipriani is arriving to team-up with Beale at the Ricoh, Wasps rugby director Dai Young will want assurances that they will not lead each other off the straight and narrow. Young also insisted that he has done his due diligence, adding: “You certainly don’t want to bring anyone into the environment who’s going to upset the apple-cart with the players.”
Team culture and discipline is a strange brew, and, as Bath discovered earlier this season when the Sam Burgess saga ran its course, superstar imports from Down Under can be more disruptive than they are constructive.
The difference is that Beale is a fully-fledged Union star rather than a League novice like Burgess, but Young will know that it is imperative he finds the right position and role for him as quickly as possible. This is not least because the players around him will want to be reassured that he is worth his huge £750,000 annual pay cheque.
Beale will be on the biggest salary in the Premiership, and one which is more than treble the pay-packets of many of his Wasps team-mates. It is that differential in filthy lucre which can often be the most corrosive element to building an all-for-one, one-for-all team spirit.
There is plenty of evidence that Bath – whose Premiership slump continued with an away loss to Harlequins on Friday night – are still living with the corrosion from their dalliance with Burgess, whose pay packet was £250,000 a year less than Wasps are forking out for Beale.
The fall-out for Australian rugby is also significant, with so many of the crowd-pulling stars in its Super Rugby franchises being picked off by Northern Hemisphere clubs. Daryl Gibson, who is Beale’s coach at the NSW Waratahs, says that they cannot compete with the money Wasps are offering. Gibson also says that the 60-Test threshold that makes him available to the Wallabies while the Waratahs lose him is not a long-term solution. He added: “I don’t think we’re quite at that tipping point yet, but certainly it’s going to be a big issue for Australian rugby. We’re keen to keep Kurtley here, (but) it’s going to be difficult for him. That’s a huge sum of money.”
If the deal is clinched the challenge for Wasps is making sure Beale’s pay does not become a disruptive force.
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