Waratahs backs coach Chris Whitaker says the team’s two trials in mid-January will be “crucial” as they attempt to identify the long-term successor to Bernard Foley in the sky blue no.10.
But while the Waratahs have some of the best young playmaking talent in the country in Mack Mason, Will Harrison and Ben Donaldson, it appears the short-term solution at fly-half for the start of Super Rugby will be Kurtley Beale.
Beale arrived back at Waratahs training last week after a post-World Cup break and it’s understood new Tahs coach Rob Penney has already pencilled in the versatile 30-year-old to be his playmaker for the early stages of the season.
The Waratahs take on defending champions the Crusaders away in the opening round, and while Junior Wallabies Harrison and Donaldson are superb prospects, and the former is expected to feature in Super Rugby in 2020, to debut in Christchurch in round one at no.10 would be too big a stretch.
Mason is the most experienced and Super-ready of all the contenders, and arguably deserves the first shot, given his patient, three-season term as understudy to Foley.
But the 23-year-old still only has six Super Rugby caps - with three starts.
The Waratahs have no-one but themselves to blame for the hole at no.10 after handling the post-Foley succession planning poorly.
In tough seasons where they needed every win they could get, Daryl Gibson rarely played Mason, and instead stuck with the Wallabies no.10 in almost every game.
Mason was unused in 2018 and only started twice in 2019, during Foley’s mandatory rest games. Ugly losses to the Sunwolves and the Highlanders ensued.
Whitaker concedes Mason should have got more time and lessons were learned.
"One hundred percent - he was on the bench for the first three games, and unfortunately the games had one or two points in them, so to get him on was quite tough,” Whitaker said.
"But in hindsight, yes, the ideal is to give guys sufficient game time before they get out there and have those key roles.
"That’s why those first two trials are crucial for that position, to work those combinations and also see who is going to put their hand up.”
The Waratahs play the HIghanders at Leichhardt Oval on January 17 and then against Queensland in Dalby a week later, before the earliest-ever round one start date of February 1.
"Those two first trials are crucial because that position is so even,” Whitaker said.
"At the moment we have Mack Mason, Will Harrison and Ben Donaldson and you have got Kurtley Beale as well.
"Kurtley has just returned with us but he is aware one of his roles this year is also helping those young guys through."
Beale began his career as a no.10, and played in the spot in the 2008 final against the Crusaders. But he has largely played no.12 and no.15 in the last decade.
Whitaker said his experience would be crucial to not only help the team perform, but to mentor the next generation coming through.
"He is our safety net (at no.10),” Whitaker said.
"We have to bring someone through because as we know, Kurtley is getting older as well, so we need to get these young guys up and get them experience.
“Will one of those guys plays every game? I don’t think so. But it is probably more drip-feeding them in, we don’t want to throw them in and kill their confidence.
"But at the same time giving them enough to give them experience and be able to play at this level and succeed there. A key part is putting the right players around them so they can succeed.”
Though they’ve lost a fair chunk of experience, the Waratahs will still have some greybeards out wide, with Karmichael Hunt and Tepai Moeroa in the midfield, and now seasoned mid-career players like Jake Gordon, Lalakai Foketi, Alex Newsome and Cam Clark on deck too.
Beale playing five-eighth would open up the no.15 spot for someone, and like many playmakers before them, the likes of Harrison and Donaldson could easily be introduced to Super Rugby with half-hour stints at the back.