SYDNEY (Reuters) - With rugby union in Australia suffering a crisis of confidence, nothing less than a handsome victory for the Wallabies will suffice when they take on Italy in Brisbane on Saturday.
A home defeat at the hands of Scotland last weekend saw the twice world champions drop to fourth in the rankings behind New Zealand, England and Ireland, adding to a bank of dark cloud hanging over the game Down Under.
With the country’s Super Rugby sides in the doldrums on the pitch, and the almost farcical attempt to remove one of them for next season triggering a public relations disaster off it, Australian rugby desperately needs some good news.
Beating the Italians, who have lost their first two tests of the June international window to the Scots and Fiji, would only have limited restorative powers, but defeat at Lang Park is unthinkable.
Coach Michael Cheika took time this week to telephone a disgruntled Wallabies fan whose social media post accusing the team of lacking passion for the gold jersey went viral.
Cheika has posted the missive on the dressing room wall and promised his side would do their best to deliver the sort of stylish rugby and commitment that Australian fans expect.
“I‘m not saying we’re going to be perfect, but we’re going to be doing our best to show what our supporters want,” he said.
“Considering the season we’ve been having we’re lacking a little bit of belief in ourselves.”
Cheika also overhauled his team, which opened the test window by thrashing Fiji 37-14, with six changes including the return at hooker of captain Stephen Moore.
Other changes include reuniting Rory Arnold and Adam Coleman in a second row pairing that showed great promise last season, and the return of the experienced Rob Horne in the centres.
“It’s an opportunity for us to go out there after a disappointing performance and show our fans what it means to us,” Moore said.
Italy have brought an inexperienced squad to the southern hemisphere and coach Conor O‘Shea made three changes to the side that lost 22-19 in Suva last weekend.
The Azzurri will be bidding to beat Australia for the first time after 16 failed attempts and O‘Shea said his side would have to be positive if they were to end that run.
“We know how tough this is going to be - the Wallabies on a backlash - but we’ll get up and ... take the game to them,” O‘Shea said.
“There’s no point standing back, if we stand back it’s a disaster.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Auckland, editing by Peter Rutherford