The reset season following the World Cup in Japan was supposed to be the one that brought Australian rugby competitively closer to our Kiwi rivals.
Utterly dominant over four years since their 2015 World Cup triumph, many humbled All Blacks were departing New Zealand to take up contracts in Europe and Japan.
Missing this Super Rugby season were Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Whitelock, Ryan Crotty, Ma’a Nonu, Waisake Naholo, Owen Franks, Matt Todd, Liam Squire and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Add to that huge exodus another tier of top-quality provincial players such as Jordan Taufua, Jackson Hemopo, Tevita Li, Melani Nanai, Luke Whitelock, Matt Proctor, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Michael Collins, Sam Lousi and Toby Smith.
But after three rounds of Super Rugby, Australian sides have bagged just three wins. That’s three victories from 12 games – the three coming from Australian derbies.
None from six against foreign opposition is the sorry statistic that’s put a dampener on any early-season optimism that might’ve been building in Australia.
The Waratahs and Reds are yet to triumph. The Rebels have notched one win while the Brumbies should be unbeaten, but bumbled late against the Highlanders in Canberra last weekend.
It’s not even March, so let’s not call it a deep depression. But Super Rugby title contention for any of Australia’s four teams looks far-fetched, right? Are we all on the Western Force in Global Rapid Rugby?
Now Jordan Petaia is out for the season. Again. Mumps have got to the Brumbies. Matt Toomua and Reece Hodge are both sidelined with groin injuries.
New Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, over in Glasgow, could be forgiven for feeling as if Australia’s chances of winning back the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2003 are as gloomy as the Scottish weather in February. The first Bledisloe Test of the three-match series is still six months away, but the Kiwi teams are far from flopping when taking into the account the huge exodus of classy and experienced personnel.
Not only is the Super Rugby form of the Australian teams dire, but plenty of Wallabies and top young talent have moved on to overseas clubs. Samu Kerevi, David Pocock, Will Genia, Rory Arnold, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano, Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Adam Coleman, Nick Phipps, Scott Higginbotham, Quade Cooper, Sam Carter, Curtis Rona, Caleb Timu, Duncan Paia’aua and Sefa Naivalu have all bolted.
New Zealand’s five teams have thrived despite NZ Rugby’s unpopular “workload management” policy involving All Blacks players, meaning they haven’t all seen too much game time yet.
When Rennie, the former Chiefs coach and proud Kiwi, was revealed as Wallabies coach there seemed to be minimal negative blowback from New Zealanders. Most who weren’t revved up about the appointment of Ian Foster to replace Steve Hansen as All Blacks coach were filthy that Scott Robertson missed out on the gig.
But perhaps part of the mindset amongst some Kiwis was that Rennie, a two-time Super Rugby-winning coach with the Chiefs, could turn the Wallabies around and finally make the Bledisloe a decent battle again. Across the series. Australia’s recent wins in Perth and Brisbane are memorable mainly because they’re so scarce.
Perhaps Rennie can convince Raelene Castle to take another look at the Giteau Law. That might help. Back into the selection frame would come Kerevi, Coleman, Latu and Arnold. Maybe even Pocock. Sean McMahon is another.
Foster’s first All Blacks team will naturally look a lot different to the one that was stunned by England in Yokohama last year. However as gloriously evidenced in the clash between the Chiefs and Crusaders in Hamilton earlier this month, the depth in New Zealand rugby is as powerful as Australian rugby fans probably feared and expected.
In fact, watch any of Super Rugby’s New Zealand derbies and the speed, physicality and accuracy goes to another level, as it has for a while. They are the match-ups that seem to be becoming more appealing to Aussie rugby fans rather than any of matches involving Australian teams.
The entertainment element might be surpassing any provincial or patriotic motivation for Australian rugby fans.
The first Bledisloe clash is in Melbourne on August 8, with the second match a week later in Wellington. It’s a long way away, and it’s over the top to declare the trophy is in the All Blacks’ bag.
But given what we’ve witnessed so far, there are few signs that suggest Australian rugby is ready to close the gap on the Kiwis, who move forward with perennial power and professionalism.