MELBOURNE, Aug 19 (Reuters) - The Wallabies head to New Zealand for the second Rugby Championship clash against the All Blacks in Auckland with fresh doubts over their set piece and familiar queries over their mental fortitude when pressured by the world champions.
The 38-13 defeat at Sydney’s Olympic stadium was Australia’s third successive humbling at the hands of the champion All Blacks in the tournament opener, leaving them with a mountain to climb at Eden Park where they have not won since 1986.
Coach Michael Cheika and his captain Michael Hooper have a job ahead of them to lift the squad out of their funk after their meek capitulation after halftime.
Trailing 6-5 at the break, the All Blacks ran in five second-half tries as the Wallabies coughed up possession with a slew of handling errors and bungled set pieces.
Losing seven lineouts and conceding six scrum penalties is no way to play test rugby, let alone upset Steve Hansen’s men.
For Cheika, however, the Wallabies’ most egregious crime was to fail to win the ball back after giving it away cheaply.
“You can’t sook (cry) about it, you’ve got to get on with it,” he told reporters at Sydney airport on Sunday ahead of their flight to New Zealand.
“It’s a line-out, if you don’t win it, go get the ball some other how.
“I’m the coach of the team, I want those things to go well but even when they don’t, the opportunities are still there to make the tackles, get the ball back.”
The Wallabies lost 2-1 in a hard-fought June series to Ireland but their pack emerged with reputation enhanced, and there was hope in the crowd of 66,000 at Olympic stadium of a decent showing.
The depth of the Wallabies’ pack was quickly undermined, however, when reserve tighthead prop Taniela Tupou was ruled out before the match and starter Sekope Kepu was injured early.
Jermaine Ainsley, Tupou’s replacement on the bench, was called into action when Kepu went off for a head-injury assessment and the Wallabies’ scrum promptly unravelled.
After hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau’s line-out throws were picked off with ease by New Zealand’s formidable locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, his replacement Tolu Latu proved similarly shaky.
Not even the injection of experienced line-out caller Rob Simmons could stiffen the Wallabies’ set piece.
Adding a further headache for Cheika, fullback and prolific try-scorer Israel Folau has been left home after hobbling off in the second half with an ankle injury.
Defeat at Eden Park will mean the Bledisloe Cup, the annual trophy contested by the trans-Tasman nations and held by the All Blacks since 2003, remains in New Zealand for another year.
The Wallabies have shown an ability to bounce back against the odds, and very nearly upset the All Blacks away in Dunedin last year following an opening 54-34 trouncing in Sydney.
Few will give them much hope of toppling the All Blacks at their Eden Park stronghold, however.
“The job’s the same, we’ve still got to win two more games, there’s no more room for manoeuvre,” said Cheika of their faded Bledisloe hopes. “We’ve got to bring everything we’ve got on Saturday and let the cards fall where they do.” (Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)