17 Aug 2017

Aussie rugby's future on weakened Wallabies' shoulders

6:32 am on 17 August 2017

Opinion - Australian Rugby sits on a precipice, and a slip could spell doom.

Its Super Rugby teams are an embarrassment, the administrators have taken months to make a decision they said would take 72 hours and now they're having to get ready for what promises to be an ugly fight.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika

You could say Wallabies coach Michael Cheika is under pressure for his side to win Saturday's match. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

But through all the battles of their Super Rugby teams - including their hugely embarrassing 0-26 record against the New Zealand teams this year - the Wallabies remain somewhat unblemished.

The sport in Australia is at its lowest ebb in a long time.

Should the Wallabies beat the All Blacks on Saturday, all the doom and gloom will be swept under the rug. For now. However, should Michael Cheika's side show the guts and determination, flair and fight of their Super sides - i.e. none - and get put to the sword, then where to for the sport in Australia?

It's already dying a painful but not so slow death. A study this year revealed rugby was the 26th most popular sport in Oz with the same amount of registered participants as ballroom dancing.

More worrying than that decline is the fact that since 2002 the numbers have dropped from 148,000 to 55,000 - a catastrophic collapse of nearly 63 percent. And remember they held the Rugby World Cup in 2003, something most would expect the sport to boost from.

Young people have a lot of choice over what sports they play and there is plenty of competition in Australia. And winners sell. In-fighting and court cases don't. A young Aussie looking at starting a sport is hardly going to be inspired by the any of the Super teams.

So, no pressure Michael Hooper and co: it's all on you, especially after the Wallaroos went down 48-0 to France in their world cup competition this week.

New Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper.

New Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper in action Photo: Photosport

The All Blacks need their regular opponents - the Wallabies and Springboks - to be strong, or a lack of competition will eventually rub off on them too.

But do the Wallabies have a chance? Really? Their PR machine will trumpet "of course we have" and are quick to point out that test footy is very different from Super Rugby. And rightly so. Remember, this is a side that made the World Cup final just 22 months ago.

They'll point out the Wallabies don't have the dead weight that the Super sides do, and the top 23 Australians will be competitive with the top 23 New Zealanders, but right across the board the All Blacks have advantages.

They too get to pick from five Super teams and ours are actually good. Saying it's the cream of the cream against the cream of the crap is overstating it a bit. You remember how bad the Australian Super teams really were.

"Can't catch, can't pass" comes to mind.

Adding to their woes is the fact the All Blacks have just come off arguably their toughest test series since South Africa in 1996, and then four of the New Zealand sides got to play more top footy in the Super Rugby finals.

What have the Wallabies done? Had scratchy wins over Fiji and Italy and a loss to a Scottish side missing its three best players, then played club footy while the real Super teams finished the competition. It doesn't bode well.

Scotland beat the Wallabies 24-19 in June.

Scotland beat the Wallabies 24-19 in June. Photo: Photosport NZ

One thing in their favour is plenty of time together. The Wallabies do have a good side on paper, but for too long some of those "stars" have underperformed.

The public kick up the bum the team received after poor June tests can only have helped, while the Force-Rebels saga can only be draining for those players directly affected.

Cheika has been praised as a clever coach, though turning the sport in his country around would be a real sign of greatness.

Surely he learned plenty from the Lions series and while Steve Hansen and co would have worked hard on the weaknesses from that series, if Cheika is worth his weight, he'll have some plans in place for Saturday night.

If not, the Bledisloe Cup - or, as former Wallaby Joe Roff called it, the "Schapelle Corby Cup" because of how long it's been out of Australia - will lose even more interest as Australia slip down the world rankings even more.

That's no good for anyone. Rugby doesn't have enough world-class teams now - the loss of one of its proudest from the top tier would not only be a shame, it would be bloody hard to come back from.

Matt Richens has been a sports journalist for 11 years. He attributes his premature baldness to the stress of being a sports fan.

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