Super Rugby Round 4: Is Kurtley Beale best at fullback?

Inside the Tahs (3:24)

ESPN goes inside the NSW Waratahs' intense preseason camp in the lead up to their 2019 Super Rugby campaign. (3:24)

Only the Crusaders and Rebels remain unbeaten after the first three Rounds of Super Rugby, both teams with an excellent chance to extend that run at home to the Chiefs and Brumbies this weekend respectively.

There are two further local derbies in New Zealand and Australia, with the Highlanders heading to Wellington to face the Hurricanes, and the Reds in Sydney for a showdown with the Waratahs.

Meanwhile, the Jaguares have their first game on the road, away to the Lions in South Africa.

Squad lists can be found here.

Read on as we preview some of the big storylines from Round 3.


Could Beale be best at the back?

The SCG will host Australia's oldest rugby rivalry when NSW Waratahs host Queensland Reds in a crunch local derby on Saturday night.

There are not as many head-to-head Wallabies battles as years gone by, both due to the spread of talent across Australia's four franchises and the ongoing rebuild Queensland currently finds itself in. But it promises to be a keenly-contested fixture nonetheless, particularly given the improvements in the Reds' game.

The Waratahs have the better record at 1-1, but it could have so easily been 0-2 had Hayden Parker not pushed a match-winning Sunwolves drop goal to the left of the posts in Tokyo a fortnight ago. Comparing the teamsheets, though, and it's the Waratahs whom boast the greater star power.

But the Waratahs squad has taken an interesting turn this week after coach Daryl Gibson named Kurtley Beale at fullback. Almost exclusively used at inside centre since his return from Wasps, Beale has been moved back to the position where he was once nominated for World Rugby's Player of the Year.

In 2010, Beale had a spectacular season for the Wallabies at fullback. Memories of the now veteran utility chasing through his own high balls, regathering and cutting then shredding opposition defences, have been forgotten amid Israel Folau's highlight reel of the past six seasons.

But there are many who believe Beale's best position is fullback, due to the freedom it gives him in attack and that he is also removed from the frontline defensively. It's true, Beale has often been jettisoned to the back three in defence at both Super and Test level; but by shifting him there permanently it removes the need for that interchangeability to exist.

There is no doubt Folau's best work is done at fullback, too, and that Rebels skipped Dane Haylett-Petty also looks far more comfortable in the No. 15 jersey than he does on the wing. Both men had the opportunity play fullback for the Wallabies last year, before the code-hopper finished 2018 with arguably his best Test of season as the custodian against England at Twickenham.

Still, Beale deserves a crack at the position where he was awarded the John Eales Medal in 2011.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika will no doubt be an interested spectator in a season where he must be prepared for injuries. Even if Folau turns out to be the man wearing the Wallabies No. 15 jersey come the 21st September in Sapporo, few people will forget how he played on one foot for virtually all the knockout rounds of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Then again, Beale may begin to make a compelling case for selection by spearheading a stuttering Waratahs attack on Saturday night, and showing that he is just as capable as Folau under the concentrated air-raid many predict will be a central theme in rugby's global showpiece later this year.


'The new Chiropractor' takes on Canes midfield

He has already fallen foul of the referees this season with a Round 1 red card, but the Highlanders still have full faith in a player they believe hits with the same power as Samoan great Brian "The Chiropractor" Lima.

Sio Tomkinson has earned the chance to start against the star-studded Hurricanes backline after earning high praise for his work off the bench in the Highlanders' loss to the Rebels last week, locking in what promises to be a brutal contest with the red-hot Hurricanes pairing of Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor.

Tomkinson hasn't come from nowhere, he has instead had to bide his time in the Mitre 10 Cup while only being offered sparing opportunities with the Highlanders.

It's clear Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger likes what he sees in the 22-year-old Otago local, though.

"He's actually a pretty softly spoken guy, pretty gentle, but as soon as crosses the chalk he has that ruthless mindset about him, not too dissimilar to Brian Lima who was a Highlanders legend,'' head coach Aaron Mauger said.

"There's a bit of Brian Lima in Sio's mindset around the tackle."

Whether that's enough to strike fear into the Hurricanes backline is doubtful, though they won't want to see any passes drifting up above their heads if Tomkinson's comparison to Lima proves to be correct.

The former Samoan skipped made a habit of laying out ball-runners, or those forced to expose their ribs like Springboks No. 10 Derick Hougaard did while playing against the Islanders in Brisbane during the 2003 World Cup. If you're forgotten just how brutal "The Chiropractor's" hit was on that occasion, it's worth revisiting on YouTube with an eye to what may be possible from Tomkinson on Friday night.

Tomkinson's red card, which he received for a tackle on Brodie Retallick in Round 1, was later ruled incorrect by a SANZAAR judiciary panel, but he will still want to manage his technique accordingly.

Outside of the spicy midfield battle, Round 4's opening fixture is loaded with All Blacks talent across the park. The Highlanders have welcomed back Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Luke Whitelock to their starting side, while the Hurricanes have bolstered their already stacked line-up with the addition of Jordie Barrett on the wing.

Having smashed the Brumbies in Palmerston North last week, the Hurricanes will play for the first time at Westpac Stadium this year. It will be a special night for skipped Dane Coles at the Cake Tin, in particular, the try-scoring hero from last week has seen precious little game time at the venue over the last few years.

Look for the injection of his deputy Asafo Aumua, off the bench, late in the match, too.


More 'Test football' at Loftus

There is little doubt the derby between the Bulls and the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday is the match of the round in South Africa this week; it might just be the match of the round full stop.

The Bulls have been extremely good in their two derby wins on the Highveld this season - drubbing the Stormers at home and the Lions in Johannesburg last week; they are two of the better performances anywhere in the opening three rounds. The Sharks, meanwhile, claimed stylish bonus-point wins against the Sunwolves and the Blues before they were off the pace at home to the Stormers last week.

We had wondered ahead of Round 3 if the Sharks were conditioned for a South African derby after their runs out against less physical opponents, and they certainly failed to match their visitors in "muscle" in Durban. They could never get front-foot ball, unable to better the abrasive Stormers pack led superbly by Eben Etzebeth and Pier Steph du Toit, and their backs, so impressive in the opening two weeks, were often lateral against a hard-hitting defence; indeed their backs failed to show anything like their previous composure, and the early intercept try they conceded was a result of nothing more than trying to force passes that were not on for the sake of sticking to a "wide game plan". We will find out this weekend if the lack of muscle against the Stormers was related to more than conditioning.

The Bulls will be no less physical than were the Stormers up front and on the defensive line, for that has been a key element of their two win. Equally worrying for the Sharks from last week will be their discipline and inability to counter the Stormers' kicking game. They conceded 12 penalties to 7, and had two players issued a yellow card, while they also missed 24 tackles; those numbers simply are not acceptable these days, and a more accomplished team than the Stormers would have put them to the sword.

The Bulls, this season, are more accomplished than the Stormers, and they, perhaps more than any other South African team, have adopted (and adapted) a kicking game, which they combine with smothering pressure and physical defence to play in their opponents' territory. Such was their execution last week that the Lions were lucky to have nil at halftime, while Handre Pollard has his radar tuned in order to claim maximum benefit when the penalties come; it's also notable that their defeat to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires came when they tried to play rugby rather than apply pressure (amazingly, really, given the conditions on the day) so the Sharks must know what's coming their way.

The Bulls' selection of Ivan Van Zyl at halfback, over the hitherto impressive Embrose Papier, is interesting as it indicates they might kick even more at the end of a week when Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus expressed delight with the manner in which the South African Super Rugby teams had adopted a "Test match mould".

The Sharks, perhaps, lack the cattle to play that sort of game; the offload kings of 2018 are certainly better playing with a little width and pace, but they learned last week that they cannot do that if they are not going forward -- certainly not against South African opposition. Hence it will be interesting to see if the excellent Robert du Preez this week kicks more for territory. Curwin Bosch also has a long strategic boot, with which to put the Sharks deep in Bulls territory, but he is on the bench with Rhyno Smith somewhat surprisingly preferred to replace the concussed Aphelele Fassi .

The Bulls have spoken of being aware of a Sharks backlash, and that should certainly be a factor, for the visitors remain decent opposition; but perhaps the bigger concern for the hosts is the depth of their squad -- and, in particular, the look of the second and back row of their pack. Eli Snyman did a manful job standing in for Lood de Jager last week, but now he is unfit and backrower Hanro Liebenberg deputises and Tim Agaba and Jannes Kirsten start either side of Duane Vermeulen in the backrow. That said, that's a physical backrow to hit the Sharks harder up front.

This game is likely to come down to execution of basics under pressure, especially under pressure in the 22s; both teams have excellent goal kickers, and we imagine the difference on the scoreboard will be determined by the amount of attempts they each get at the poles.