Bledis­loe blood­bath awaits for Cheika’s Aussie bat­tlers

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT - LIAM NAPIER

OPINION: June was sup­posed to pro­vide Aus­tralian rugby with a wel­come dis­trac­tion, some light re­lief, from the woes en­gulf­ing ev­ery as­pect of their game.

Scot­land, miss­ing three of their best play­ers, Fiji and Italy are hardly a heavy­weight line-up, es­pe­cially com­pared with the head­line Lions se­ries and cal­i­bre of ta­lent on show in New Zealand.

Still, re­gard­less of the op­po­si­tion, June was a chance for the Wal­la­bies to prove they would not mir­ror the lack of col­lec­tive com­petive­ness from Australia’s Super Rugby fran­chises who are 0-20 against Kiwi teams with five trans-Tasman matches re­main­ing this year.

June was a chance for Michael Cheika to pull to­gether his best play­ers; to res­tore some form of con­fi­dence amid the doom and wres­tle back mo­men­tum lead­ing into the real chal­lenge of the Rugby Cham­pi­onship.

In­stead, it has only ex­posed more is­sues, and raised gen­uine wor­ries of a pend­ing Bledis­loe Cup blood­bath.

South Africa’s re­build ap­pears to have be­gun with dual wins over France at least show­ing a re­newed pride, pas­sion and com­mit­ment. The same can­not be said for the Wal­la­bies.

De­feat last week to a Scot­land team stripped of Stu­art Hogg, Greig Laid­law and Tommy Sey­mour by the Lions was not a to­tal shock, though it did ex­pose on­go­ing con­cerns. Their at­tack un­der Stephen Larkham is pre­dictable, seem­ingly bereft of ideas. De­fence un­der Nathan Grey ap­pears to lack co­he­sion and com­mit­ment.

But the real worry for Aus­tralian rugby is they ap­pear to have nowhere else to go, and may not have hit rock bot­tom yet.

Bill Pul­ver’s con­tract as chief ex­ec­u­tive ex­pires in Fe­bru­ary and there are no sug­ges­tions he will be re­tained. His part­ing gift is to find a way to axe the Western Force so Super Rugby can push ahead with plans to re­duce to 15 teams next year. As messy ar­bi­tra­tion con­tin­ues, the Force exit re­mains no guar­an­tee, and Pul­ver may fall sooner.

Player-wise the Wal­la­bies are only miss­ing mid­field­ers Samu Kerevi and Kurt­ley Beale. Is­rael Fo­lau, Bernard Fo­ley and Will Ge­nia are all fit. Coach­ing-wise Cheika and his management team are un­der no real threat of los­ing their jobs be­cause there are no vi­able al­ter­na­tives.

The 2015 World Cup fi­nal ap­pear­ance is look­ing fur­ther and fur­ther in the dis­tance, an ir­rel­e­vance to the cur­rent state.

Any lift Cheika gen­er­ated for that tour­na­ment is gone and his play­ers still don’t seem fit enough. Where is the light?

Af­ter los­ing seven of the past 16, Cheika’s an­swer was to make six changes - four in his for­ward pack - for last night’s match against Italy, the last outing be­fore con­fronting the All Blacks in Au­gust. What­ever the re­sult from that match there is no sta­bil­ity in sight.

What’s even more galling and very rel­e­vant for New Zealand rugby and the San­zaar al­liance is the plum­met­ing in­ter­est in the Aus­tralian game.

While the All Blacks re­main a ma­jor draw­card, the open­ing Bledis­loe in Syd­ney could battle to at­tract 60,000 fans. Keep in mind one of the great­est tests be­tween the All Blacks and Wal­la­bies in the same city in 2000 pulled over 109,000. From a player per­spec­tive many of the Wal­la­bies seem to live in a bub­ble where a lack of ac­count­abil­ity pre­vails. As it stands, the reality is they are lucky to be ranked fourth in the world.

The hope for Cheika is, come Au­gust, the All Blacks will re­lax a lit­tle. Maybe a hint of com­pla­cency will creep in. But com­ing off what shapes as a high-qual­ity Lions se­ries, they are likely to be more hard­ened than ever.

And with so much depth at Steve Hansen’s dis­posal he has the lux­ury of po­ten­tially un­leash­ing the likes of a hun­gry Ngani Laumape and Jordie Bar­rett.

Hope, it seems, is all that re­mains for a re­vival in Aus­tralian rugby.

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