SYDNEY, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Fuming Australia coach Michael Cheika blamed a substandard defensive performance for the crushing 54-34 defeat at the hands of arch-rivals New Zealand in the Rugby Championship opener on Saturday.
Despite Australia running in four late tries to give the scoreboard a degree of respectability, the game was all but settled by halftime after New Zealand had run in six tries to lead 40-6.
Australia sought to reinforce their defence at halftime, but after missing 31 tackles in 31 minutes the damage had been done and the world champions ran out comfortable winners.
“Our defence wasn’t good enough. The adherence to way we want to defend and the tackling has to be better,” Cheika told a news conference.
“That first-half performance was not at the level we can be at.”
The display will inevitably raise question marks against the Wallabies’ defensive coach Nathan Grey, but Cheika said he had 100 percent faith in his former assistant at the New South Wales Waratahs.
Like Cheika, Australian captain Michael Hooper accepted the defensive performance was “not good enough” but took positives in the resilience of his team to rebound when they were on course for a record test defeat.
“You have stick by things you have been doing, the stuff we have been preparing for. It showed, we were able to regroup and put points on the board,” Hooper said.
Australia now face the daunting prospect of a return game against the world champions in Dunedin, a city where Australia have won just once, 23-15 in 2001.
Australia must win away to have any chance of reclaiming the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2002.
Despite acknowledging the difficult assignment, Cheika backed his team to improve, though he ruled out wholesale changes to the team.
“We will improve. We have to do some quick improving if we want to keep the series alive,” said Cheika.
“We have to stay with what we are doing and make the contest closer, we have another chance this weekend.” (Editing by Ed Osmond)