A black cloud has begun to develop over Australian rugby following a series of poor performances by the nation’s teams so far in this year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman – and its shadow is threatening to lengthen and engulf the Wallabies.
After two rounds, Australia’s five teams are 0-10 against New Zealand opposition. The results beg the question: if the Australians cannot win at the provincial level, how will the Wallabies defeat the All Blacks in the Test arena?
The bulk of the Wallabies are expected to come from the Brumbies and the Queensland Reds, but last weekend Australia’s two best teams lost comprehensively to the best New Zealand has to offer.
All five Australian teams lost for the second week in a row, but there had been hope the Reds and the Brumbies might have been competitive against the Crusaders and Chiefs, respectively. Instead, they were simply outclassed.
In the clash of champions, the Reds fell 63-28 in Brisbane, while the Brumbies lost 40-19 in the contest between the runners-up in Hamilton. After the game, Reds co-captain Liam Wright lamented that they did not think they did much wrong, but everything they did wrong was punished.
That is one of the main differences between the the two nations’ teams. In Super Rugby AU the other Australian sides failed to capitalise on the Reds’ mistakes, particularly handling errors. They are not getting away with it against the Kiwis, who base their attack around turnover ball.
The Reds dominated Australian opposition physically, but they could not out-muscle the Crusaders, who more than matched the Queensland forwards, providing star five-eighth Richie Mo’unga with a superb platform. As former Wallabies centre Tim Horan pointed out in commentary, Mo’unga and the Crusaders backs ran so freely it almost looked, at times, like an under-10s game.
The dexterity of the Crusaders’ passing game, so reminiscent of classic French ball-handling, was at a completely different level to the Reds’. The Kiwis are not born with these skills. They are coached.
It was only a matter of time before the Brumbies suffered a letdown. The ACT side had played big back-to-back games against the Reds in the Super Rugby AU final in Brisbane and the Crusaders in Christchurch in the opening round of Trans-Tasman, losing both narrowly. The effort clearly took a lot out of the Brumbies, who were physically dominated by the Chiefs up front and out-paced by them in the backs.
The other results were just as depressing for Australian rugby with the Rebels and Waratahs thrashed by the Hurricanes (35-13) and Blues (48-21) respectively. The most competitive Australian team of the round were the Western Force, who lost to the Highlanders 25-15 in Perth, but many of their best players are foreigners, who will not offer anything to the Wallabies.
After a season of Super Rugby isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, it appears the gap between Australia and New Zealand has widened, not closed, and Australian rugby fans are openly questioning whether any of their teams will win a game against the Kiwis.
It does not get any easier. On form you would not expect the Reds to beat the Chiefs in Townsville, but the warmer climate will suit the home side. The Chiefs will go from playing in sub-10C cold to mid-20C in sub-tropical humidity, which does make a difference to players. But if the Reds continue to make unforced handling errors, the Chiefs will punish them just as severely as the Crusaders did.
The Brumbies are a fair chance of beating the Blues, but the game will be played at Eden Park in Auckland where Australian sides rarely win. Similarly, the Force will find it much more difficult when they travel to New Zealand to play the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday night, while the Rebels will be expected to struggle against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Sunday. The Waratahs could possibly concede 100 points against the Crusaders in Wollongong on Saturday if the Kiwis take them seriously.
After the hyper-intensity of Super Rugby Aotearoa in which the New Zealand sides got stuck into each other, there is no doubt the Kiwis have relaxed a little bit in Trans-Tasman, which has kept scorelines if not respectable, then at least not totally humiliating, for the Australians.
It is true that Wallabies coach Dave Rennie only has to select 23 players for a Test match, but the potentially damaging psychological effect of loss upon loss in Trans Tasman cannot be underestimated. Regardless of how the Wallabies fare against France in July, there is the possibility they enter the Bledisloe Cup series with a defeatist attitude.
The Australian teams have three weeks to turn things around and record some breakthrough wins against the Kiwis. If not, Rennie will certainly have a daunting task to piece together an Australian team which believes it is capable of beating the All Blacks in a Test, let alone bring back the Bledisloe Cup after 18 years in New Zealand.