Super Rugby gloom returns early for Australia

Following a year of toil in 2016, Australian teams have won just three of their combined 10 games in the opening two weeks, causing new season optimism to evaporate.

Waratahs' s Australian winger Michael Hooper (C) scores try during the SuperRugby match between Emirates Lions and Waratahs at the Emirates Airline Park-Johannesburg, on 4 March 2017 in Johannesburg. Picture: AFP.

MELBOURNE - Abject performances in the opening rounds of the new Super Rugby season point to another dire year ahead for the Australian conference and heaps more doubt on the nation's ability to field five competitive teams in the troubled tournament.

Following a year of toil in 2016, Australian teams have won just three of their combined 10 games in the opening two weeks, causing new season optimism to evaporate.

Amid fears Australian teams are being left behind by their southern hemisphere rivals, they have lost five of their six matches against New Zealand and South African opponents.

Humiliated 71-6 by champions Wellington Hurricanes on Saturday, the Melbourne Rebels plumbed their lowest depth since joining the competition in 2011.

The record defeat was only marginally worse than the 56-18 demolition by the Auckland Blues the previous week at home, the visitors racking up their highest score in Australia.

The New South Wales Waratahs, after week one's scrappy home win over Perth-based Western Force, were trounced 55-36 by the Lions in Johannesburg and have shown little sign of regaining the form that saw them win a maiden title in 2014.

The ACT Brumbies, Australia's only playoff team last year, have lost both their opening matches, with indiscipline proving costly in a last-gasp home defeat to the Durban-based Sharks on Saturday.

WORST TIME

Australia's embattled coaches have time to salvage their campaigns but the conference's poor start could hardly have come at a worse time for the country's embattled rugby union.

The game's southern hemisphere powerbrokers meet in London this week to decide on a way forward for the troubled competition, which has become lop-sided, convoluted and prohibitively costly since expanding to 18 teams last year.

Proposals have been tabled to reduce the competition to 16 or even 15 teams as early as next season, and the Australian Rugby Union is under pressure to jettison at least one side.

That would reduce the financial burden on the cash-strapped ARU, allow thin playing stocks to be more concentrated and see more money pumped back into the grass-roots for the long-term health of the domestic game, proponents argue.

Neither the Rebels nor the Force, who joined the competition in 2006 and are being propped up financially by the ARU, have recorded a single appearance in the playoffs and both are seen as vulnerable in any cull.

If the Rebels are desperate to save their place in the competition they have yet to show it.

Conceding 19 tries in their first two matches, they missed an astonishing 42 of 88 tackles against the rampaging Hurricanes, lost three scrums on their own feed and botched four of their own line-outs.

After New Zealand's teams dominated the 'Australasian' conference last year, the Rebels were "proof that the gulf is only getting wider," the ARU's website declared in a blunt analysis of the game.

The Rebels head into a bye this week but the players can expect little rest ahead of another daunting assignment against New Zealand's undefeated Waikato Chiefs.

"When they put down the pedal we were unable to keep up," Rebels coach Tony McGahan said.

"We were second best in pretty much everything.

"We've got more in us and we need to deliver that and we certainly haven't over the last two weeks.

"We'll have one or two days down and then we need to get back into work."