MELBOURNE, June 21 (Reuters) - Australia coach Robbie Deans is right to throw Kurtley Beale into the first British & Irish Lions test despite his personal problems, according to Andrew Walker, whose own international career derailed after helping the Wallabies win the 2001 series.
Dual international Walker, who scored a try from the wing during the lost first test in 2001, is thrilled the utility back has a place on the bench for Saturday’s match at Lang Park following his battles with alcohol issues and a recent stint at a private health clinic.
“It’s great for him to get back there,” Walker, capped seven times for the Wallabies, told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
”There may be some people who don’t want him to play but because it’s the Wallabies, he’ll stand up because he’s playing with some great players as well.
”He’s got an opportunity to really turn things around and if he comes out of it like a hero, everyone’s going to love him again.
“It’s important for him, not to prove everyone wrong but just to prove himself right. To know that he’s one of the best in the world.”
Beale, 24, has played scarcely more than half an hour of senior rugby in nearly four months after struggling with a hand injury and a string of alcohol-related incidents.
He was stood down by his Super Rugby side Melbourne Rebels in March for more than a month after punching Welsh captain Gareth Delve and another team mate in a boozy incident on a team bus in South Africa.
Days after his return to the side during an off-field programme of counselling, he was stood down again indefinitely for breaking the terms of his rehabilitation, including being found drinking at a social function with team mates.
Beale promptly checked himself into a private health clinic but resumed training with the Wallabies camp earlier this month while he continues his off-field programme.
As an indigenous player who struggled with alcohol and drugs throughout a roller-coaster career, Walker can identify with Beale’s off-field battles.
Born one of 13 in a small coastal town south of Sydney, Walker represented Australia in rugby league before union, but his Wallabies career was cut short in 2001 after seven tests when the team grew tired of him disappearing from training camps to go on long drinking sessions.
He revived his career in the National Rugby League but was banned for two years for testing positive to cocaine in 2004.
Walker switched back to rugby union after his ban ended and finished his top-flight career for Super Rugby’s Queensland Reds in 2008.
At 39, the pint-sized back still plays club rugby league in Queensland, and celebrated a championship with a team in Ipswich, an outer suburb of Brisbane.
“I’ve been there and done it. Unfortunately I didn’t really get the help I really wanted,” Walker said of his off-field problems during his career.
”At the same token I was blessed with what I had.
“Now (players) have got so much structure. (Teams) can give players the full 110 percent and not treat a player as a product, but as a person.”
Walker still cherishes the memories of the 2001 series, when he was thrown to the Lions in just his second rugby union test in Brisbane to confront a sea of red-clad fans at the Gabba stadium.
Australia lost the match 29-13, but won the next match in Melbourne where Walker broke his cheekbone and carried the pain into the final series-deciding victory in Sydney.
“I was going through some pain during the week. Out in the game, the adrenalin and excitement I was ready to rock and roll,” he said.
Having had just a single rugby union test on his resume before facing the Lions, Walker could sympathise with rugby league international Israel Folau, who will make a first start for the Wallabies on the wing at Lang Park on Saturday, only four months after his senior debut in the code.
“He’ll really relish playing for his country,” said Walker. “He’s going to be well looked after there. They reckon they’re going to target him, but he’s played big matches before. He’ll be fine.” (Editing by Patrick Johnston)