Already in a state of turmoil, Australian rugby faces a credibility test when dominant conference leaders the Brumbies host Super Rugby heavyweights the Highlanders on Saturday.
The Brumbies’ 28-12 dispatch of the woeful Waratahs on Saturday night earned the ACT outfit a record ninth consecutive derby win and back-to-back triumphs on NSW territory for the first time in the competition’s 21-year history.
But the Brumbies’ typically stoic start to 2017, in the face of speculation the two-time champions and six-time finalists could be cut as part of a SANZAAR shake-up, can’t mask Australia’s otherwise diabolical opening to the season.
Australia’s five franchises are now one from 10 against overseas opposition following round-four defeats for the Melbourne Rebels and Queensland Reds.
Hammered by the Blues and Hurricanes, the Rebels delivered a vastly improved showing but nevertheless remain winless after falling 27-14 to the table-topping Chiefs at AAMI Park.
The Reds had five-eighth Quade Cooper sent off, winger Eto Nabuli yellow-carded, and skipper James Slipper and centre Samu Keveri injured in a disastrous 44-14 loss to the Lions in Johannesburg.
Cooper faces a possible suspension for his high tackle on Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Slipper feared he either tore a calf muscle or Achilles tendon while Samu hurt his knee, leaving the Reds down on troops ahead of a gruelling trip from Africa to Argentina to tackle the Jaguares next Sunday.
The Reds are languishing in 11th spot on the ladder, one point ahead of the 13th-placed Western Force, with NSW 16th and the Rebels last entering the Waratahs’ desperate derby in Melbourne on Saturday night.
The Brumbies are fourth, but a home loss to the Highlanders would do little to ease the pressure or convince the competition’s rulers that Australia can sustain five franchises in a remodelled tournament format.
Offended that the Brumbies are even being mentioned as endangered, coach Stephen Larkham refused to discuss his side’s fight for survival when asked if the rout of the Waratahs had sent a message to SANZAAR.
Believing a decision on the Brumbies’ future had already been made – one way or another – Larkham said his opinion on the state of flux was irrelevant.
“We’re celebrating a great victory in Sydney against the Waratahs. All those decisions are not ours to make so we’ll focus on our win here,” he said.
Larkham’s focus was very much on trying to plot a rare win over New Zealand opposition.
“We’ve got the Highlanders next week and they’re a very classy team. Coached by Tony Brown, they’ve got some very good players,” he said.
“So that will be a test for us. Much like all New Zealand sides, they’ve got very good counter attack and turnover attack.
“But they’re probably a little bit more set-piece oriented with a good kicking game.
“It’s a week-by-week proposition when you come up against New Zealand sides.”
The Force also face a tough trans-Tasman challenge, up against the Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday night.