Wallabies battling to win back the faith

Michael Cheika (Getty)
Michael Cheika (Getty)

Sydney - Michael Cheika's rebuilding Wallabies suffered a blow to their confidence during the June internationals and may struggle to get it back when they start the Rugby Championship with back-to-back Tests against the All Blacks. 

Facing the world champions from across 'the ditch' has never been an ideal way to ease into the southern hemisphere tournament and the Wallabies are under the added pressure of having to 'save' Australian rugby. 

Less than two years have passed since Australia's dashing run to the World Cup final in England, but by almost any measure, the local game is at an alarmingly low ebb. 

Players and pundits are furious at the national federation's ham-fisted efforts to cut a team from Super Rugby, and fans deserted their provincial sides in droves as they stumbled through a season without a single win over New Zealand opponents. 

The June internationals offered a chance for the Wallabies to restore some faith in the Australian game but paltry crowds turned out to witness a scratchy win over Fiji, a shock loss to Scotland and a huge scare against lowly Italy. 

Against that backdrop, Australia's opener against the All Blacks in Sydney on Saturday has been invested with a grim solemnity, as if the very foundations of the sport might crumble if Cheika's men fail to at least trouble Steve Hansen's side. 

"Why is it so important? Because the Wallabies need to regain the support of the Australian rugby public in a sport that, it saddens me to say, is lagging desperately in the popularity stakes," former Wallabies fullback Matt Burke wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Saturday's match at Sydney's Olympic stadium and the return clash against the All Blacks in Dunedin also double as the first two fixtures in the teams' annual Bledisloe Cup series, which will be decided with a third test outside the Rugby Championship in October. 

Australia could lose every match against South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship and it would scarcely matter to local fans so long as their team can claim the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2002. 

Bookmakers give the Wallabies very little chance of beating the New Zealanders, who will be fuelled by the frustration of their drawn series against the British and Irish Lions. 

"I have never been less confident that we will beat the All Blacks," former Wallabies captain Andrew Slack told Reuters in a recent interview. 

For all the doubt, Cheika remains convinced his team can make the nation proud and has put his players through harrowing boot camps in regional New South Wales to build the physical and mental fitness required to match the All Blacks for 80 minutes. 

Hard-nosed flanker Michael Hooper has been confirmed as captain, ending an awkward leadership dynamic that dogged the team in June when former skipper Stephen Moore was benched for two of the matches. 

Playmaker Kurtley Beale, whose 2016 season was wiped out by injury, should also add a much-needed spark to the attack. 

But having already blooded 13 debutants last season, Cheika has another seven uncapped players in his 34-man squad as he strives to build a team that can contend at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Compared to the machine-like All Blacks, who seem able to replace quality players with the ease of car parts, the Wallabies appear far from the finished article and must find cohesion quickly to challenge for silverware.

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