Bledisloe bloodbath awaits for Cheika’s Aussie battlers
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.