MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Underwhelming performances from the Wallabies in the June test window did little to lift the gloom over Australian rugby and doubts look set to follow them into bigger battles ahead, most notably against the All Blacks.
After a disappointing 2016, low profile June internationals against Fiji, Scotland and Italy offered a chance for Michael Cheika’s side to build some momentum before facing off against the southern hemisphere heavyweights in the Rugby Championship.
Two error-strewn wins and a surprise loss to Scotland, however, exposed a worrying lack of belief among a playing group already dealing with uncertainty and plummeting form at Super Rugby level.
“It probably shows where we’re at a little bit, probably down on confidence a little bit in that game,” captain Stephen Moore said after a huge scare in the 40-27 win over 15th-ranked Italy.
The 2015 World Cup finalists have slipped to fourth in world rankings but have plunged deeper in the estimations of a frosty fan-base as winter sets in across the lower half of the country.
Cheika reached out with a phone call to one disaffected fan after the Scotland loss but would need a call-centre working around the clock to soothe the critics tearing up the Australian Rugby Union’s Facebook page.
Patience is also wearing thin among former players and pundits who see dark times ahead against the world champion All Blacks, who monstered a good British and Irish Lions side 30-15 last weekend.
“I’m an optimist and I believe it will all work out some time down the track,” Andrew Slack, who led the Wallabies on their 1984 grand slam tour of Europe and to a series win in New Zealand two years later, told Reuters.
“But I have never been less than confident that we will beat the All Blacks.”
The players now head back to their Super Rugby teams for the last two rounds of the regular season. None have a winning record and none have tasted victory over a New Zealand team in 23 attempts this year.
Four of Australia’s five teams will be spectators for the playoffs and either the Melbourne Rebels or the Western Force will have played their final game as the 18-team competition contracts to 15 next year.
“All this other stuff that’s a problem for Australian rugby with the fifth team, that’s all adding up,” said Slack of the Super Rugby cull.
“I don’t know how quickly (the Wallabies) can change. I don’t think it’s a matter of them changing, it’s a slow burn everywhere else until we get a foundation from which they can do better work at that top level.”
The All Blacks showed they remain the benchmark in their win over the Lions, showcasing the toughness and efficiency that has made them virtually unbeatable over the past decade.
The Wallabies, meanwhile, showed glimpses of brilliance in each of the three tests but they were easily forgotten among a litany of handling errors.
Under pressure, moreover, they retreated back into their shells and what steel there had been was quick to disappear from their set-piece.
Some relief is on the horizon before their opening match against the All Blacks on Aug. 19, with a few quality reinforcements set to bolster the squad.
Kurtley Beale should bring a spark to the backline and openside flanker Sean McMahon will add depth to the back row stocks.
But queries over the Wallabies’ leadership will continue to dog the side if 34-year-old Moore, who was benched against Fiji and Scotland, is unable to nail down his spot as starting hooker.
“Once you’re named as the leader but not treated as the leader, that plays in the mind,” said Slack. “Human beings want to feel that the confidence extolled in them is not temporary.”
Slack was concerned about Cheika’s “chopping and changing” but World Cup-winning coach Bob Dwyer said the coach had little choice but to experiment.
“It was right to give some people opportunities. The Super Rugby teams in Australia haven’t given him much help,” said the 76-year-old.
“I don’t think there are massive problems right now. I think we’ll put together a very competitive team ... No team is beaten before the game starts.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney