MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Having set the Wallabies up for failure in recent seasons, Australia’s underperforming Super Rugby sides are under pressure to improve and send Michael Cheika’s team to the World Cup in Japan with some momentum.
Since the Wallabies’ run to the 2015 World Cup final in England, Australia have been virtual passengers in Super Rugby, with only the New South Wales Waratahs making the semi-finals of the last three campaigns.
Any pretence of a rivalry with neighbouring New Zealand was obliterated as Australia’s teams floundered through a 40-match losing streak to trans-Tasman rivals that lasted two years and spanned three seasons.
The Sydney-based Waratahs finally lifted the curse by beating the Otago Highlanders last May but it was hardly the watershed that home fans craved.
The Waratahs were the only one of Australia’s four teams to post a winning record, and while their tally of nine wins, one draw and six losses topped the conference and earned an automatic playoff spot, it would have seen them finish fifth in the New Zealand conference.
Little wonder Australian rugby has virtually ground to a halt at international level.
Since losing to New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup decider, the Wallabies have lost eight of their last nine matches to the All Blacks. They managed only four wins from 13 tests against all opponents last season.
Cheika criticised local Super Rugby sides in 2017 for sending players into Wallabies camp in no condition for test rugby and has won agreement from them to rest all players in his World Cup plans for at least two matches this season.
The Wallabies-laden Waratahs, who former coach Cheika guided to a maiden title in 2014, therefore face a big challenge in player management.
They are still the most likely to win the conference, however, as the country’s best-resourced province.
They boast the attacking weapons to trouble any side but were badly let down by defence last year and need to stop shipping tries to have genuine claims.
Coach Daryl Gibson has also gambled with team discipline by bringing in backline veterans Adam Ashley-Cooper and Karmichael Hunt, who was frozen out of the Queensland Reds last season after a second drug-related offence.
Ashley-Cooper will play alongside utility back Kurtley Beale, also no stranger to controversy. The pair were stood down for the England test last year after bringing female guests, including Ashley-Cooper’s sister-in-law, back to their room at the team hotel.
The Dave Wessels-coached Melbourne Rebels may be best equipped to challenge the Waratahs. They will not be satisfied with anything less than playoffs after crumbling in the final games of last season.
Having long lacked a decent flyhalf, they now have former Wallaby Quade Cooper re-forming the halves partnership with Will Genia that delivered the Reds a maiden title in 2011.
Wallabies inside centre Matt Toomua will also be a handy addition late in the season when he finishes duties with Leicester.
The Dan McKellar-coached ACT Brumbies boast a test-strength pack and had the conference’s strongest defence last year but have driven Canberra fans away with their stodgy play.
They badly need more creativity and tries to win a playoff spot, and will hope former Waikato Chief Toni Pulu and 21-year-old rugby league convert Tom Wright can provide more backline inspiration.
Neither of the remaining two sides in the conference — Queensland and the Tokyo-based Sunwolves — are expected to challenge.
Brad Thorn’s clean-out at the Reds last season has left a young and willing roster but one that is still considered too raw, while the Sunwolves have a serious lack of depth, despite coach Tony Brown working hard to recruit New Zealand talent.
Now in their fourth season, the Sunwolves will be under pressure to improve upon their record of three wins last season to drum up local interest in the World Cup while proving to Super Rugby bosses they should be retained in the competition.
Additional reporting by Jack Tarrant in Tokyo; Editing by Greg Stutchbury