SYDNEY • Australia's once-mighty rugby union scene has reached a low ebb after a year of problems on and off the pitch - and things look unlikely to improve this week when New Zealand come to town.
While there is perhaps never a good time to face the All Blacks, Saturday's Bledisloe Cup opener in Sydney does not come at an opportune moment for the Wallabies.
The two-time world champions come together at a time of civil war in Australian rugby, after a lamentable Super Rugby season was followed by the contentious axing of one of its teams, Perth's Western Force.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) earned widespread opprobrium when they made their long-awaited decision to discontinue the Force's Super Rugby licence, moving from five teams to four as the sprawling competition slims down to 15 franchises next year.
The Rugby Union Players' Association condemned the Force's axing as "the darkest day in the history of Australian rugby".
The fallout for the national body is stark, with its chief executive Bill Pulver announcing his resignation and more changes likely to follow.
A legal battle also looks in prospect after the Force, who enjoy the heavyweight backing of mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, applied to appeal against their removal from Super Rugby.
Meanwhile, Australian crowds and television ratings for the southern hemisphere competition have fallen off a cliff.
Crowds tumbled at Super Rugby matches as Australian teams struggled, from 643,790 in 2015 to just over 400,000 this year, while the host broadcaster reported a decline of more than 800,000 viewers from the previous year.
Australian Super Rugby teams were also 0-26 in games against New Zealand opposition.
Embattled ARU chairman Cameron Clyne told reporters: "We have to face reality. Our teams are not winning on a regular basis.
"And that is keeping fans, who have a lot more entertainment options, saying that they are not going to make that investment and that has a direct impact on revenue."
The discontentment puts coach Michael Cheika and his Wallabies in an invidious position in their annual quest to conquer the All Blacks, who they last beat two years ago in Sydney.
The Wallabies have won just three of their last 29 Tests against the formidable New Zealanders, and often have been on the end of some on-field humiliations.
"For us, what we want to show to those people, from a Wallabies point of view, is best done by playing a great game of footy and entertaining them and making them proud to be Australian," Cheika declared.