MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A calamitous loss for the Queensland Reds, the surrender of a 29-point lead by the New South Wales Waratahs and a shockingly small crowd in Canberra captured all the ills of Australian Super Rugby in a handful of hours on Saturday.
At the close of a mostly miserable day of matches, two of Australia’s four teams were all but out of the post-season race and the nation’s losing streak to New Zealand sides stretched to 39 matches.
The rot set in when the Reds ran out in Tokyo, fresh after a bye and full of confidence after upsetting South Africa’s conference-leading Lions in their last start.
That self-belief was torpedoed as the previously winless Sunwolves claimed a rousing 63-28 victory, virtually ensuring Queensland will miss the playoffs for a fifth straight year.
The Waratahs then threatened the upset of the season when they stormed to a 29-0 lead late in the first half away to the champion Canterbury Crusaders.
Instead, the Crusaders mounted the biggest comeback in Super Rugby history as the Waratahs collapsed to a 31-29 loss, with disputed calls rubbing salt into the visitors’ wounds.
The Melbourne Rebels-ACT Brumbies match offered the chance for at least one Australian team to salvage something positive from the weekend and the sides battled hard at Canberra Stadium.
The crowd of 5,283 was the smallest in nearly 20 years of Super Rugby in the nation’s capital and those that turned up saw the hosts squander a 14-point lead to lose 27-24.
Having stayed strong through recent years of strife in the Australian conference, the Brumbies are nearly certain to miss the post-season for the first time since 2012.
The threadbare crowd and the twice champions’ free-fall under new coach Dan McKellar, an appointment promoted from within after Stephen Larkham stepped aside, will raise alarm bells at under-fire Rugby Australia.
“Certainly our form is playing a part (with the crowds) and I’ve got to front up and take ownership of that 100 percent and I’ll never hide away from that,” McKellar said.
“It’s if you start looking for quick fixes and blaming other people and looking for excuses, then it won’t (turn).”
Since the Waratahs clinched the nation’s last title under Michael Cheika in 2014, Australia’s teams have steadily declined as their New Zealand rivals have only grown stronger.
The competition has turned off local fans, many of whom were enraged when Rugby Australia axed Perth-based Western Force last year after spurning an offer of a multi-million dollar donation from mining tycoon Andrew Forrest to prop up the team.
Billionaire Forrest has spent part of his fortune setting up his World Series Rugby, bringing Asia-Pacific teams to Perth to play the Force in a series of matches featuring pre-match entertainment and rule modifications to speed up play.
The event has been dismissed by some media pundits as “gimmicky” but 19,000 turned up to the Force’s opening match against a Fijian side, comfortably outstripping the country’s biggest Super Rugby attendance this season.
Crowd sizes will be under the microscope when the Wallabies host Ireland in June internationals, after disappointing turn-outs for the tests against Fiji, Scotland and Italy last year.
“It’s really sad to be honest, as a rugby union person,” McKellar said in Canberra. “Everyone in this room and here tonight wants the game to be thriving. The reality is at the moment, it isn’t.”
Editing by John O'Brien