The timing couldn't be worse. Australian rugby is in the midst of an almighty battle to hold all five of its Super Rugby teams for next year and breathe life into a grassroots game struggling for traction, and four of their teams face New Zealand opposition this week.

It's clearly not ideal because so far in 2017, Australian teams are yet to beat Kiwi opposition. Seven times they have tried and seven times they have failed, and four of those games have been in Australia.

It's games against New Zealand teams that have exposed Australian sides for lacking basic skills at an individual level and the same innate ability to read the game as their Kiwi opposites.

It's games against New Zealand sides that sharpen the appetite for some kind of Super Rugby cull in Australia. They play, they lose, and it strengthens the argument Australia doesn't have the player base to support five teams.


Last year, Australia won just three games of 26 against New Zealand teams and more defeats this weekend will heap more pressure on the Australian Rugby Union to do what they increasingly seem reluctant to do and live up to their promise to their Sanzaar partners that they are going to cut a team from next year's Super Rugby.

The Australians are desperate to keep five teams and build the game across their vast land mass but the gulf between their best and New Zealand's best is hindering their case.

It wouldn't be a surprise if Australian teams are still winless in transtasman encounters by Sunday night. The Highlanders and Rebels will be the first in action and on the hard and fast ground of Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Rebels could end up being run off their feet.

The Melbourne-based side look the weakest of the Australians and have been thumped by the Blues and Hurricanes and well beaten by the Chiefs. The Rebels have little in the way of individual class and look destined to finish in the bottom three. Sport is full of surprises but a Rebels victory in Dunedin this weekend - against a Highlanders team that will be motivated by their grafting win against the Brumbies last week and the fact it is Aaron Smith's 100th game - is hard to foresee.

The Blues, strangely given their overall results in the past few years, haven't lost at home to an Australian franchise since 2014.

They will be strong favourites to preserve their clean sheet at Eden Park when they play the Force, because they look to have more ball carrying power and attacking clout than the Western Australians.

They also have a clear understanding about the mental approach they will have to take.

"They [Force] will have plenty of motivation given the maybes of what is going on in Australia," says Blues coach Tana Umaga. "We have no illusions about how motivated they will be, so we can't take anything for granted. Past performances, as we know, count for very little."

The defending champion Hurricanes will feel that if they play to their potential, they should have way too much strike power for a Reds team returning from a winless road trip to South Africa and Argentina.

If there is any genuine hope for the Australians, it lies with the Waratahs, who play the Crusaders on Sunday afternoon. This is the one game that isn't so easy to call given the star-studded line-up of the Waratahs and their proven ability to win regularly in Sydney.

The Waratahs have lacked consistency since they won the title in 2014, but have periodically delivered in one-off performances. They played their best match last year against the Chiefs in Sydney, something which the Crusaders will be aware of.

Against that, though, the Crusaders are unbeaten in 2017 and displaying the sort of form that has a few good judges wondering if this might be the year they win their ninth title.