MELBOURNE • Abject performances in the opening rounds of the new Super Rugby season point to another dire year ahead for the competition, and heap more doubt on Australia's ability to field five competitive teams in the troubled tournament.
Questions are also being asked about the Singapore co-based Japanese side Sunwolves' ability to fight it out in the tough field after they were humiliated 83-17 by the Wellington Hurricanes in their opening game and then lost 23-37 to South Africa's Southern Kings in Singapore on Saturday.
Following a year of toil, Australian teams have won just three of their combined 10 games in the opening two weeks, causing the new season's 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 plummeted to 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, 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 play-off team last year, have lost both their opening matches, with indiscipline proving costly in a last-gasp home defeat by the Durban-based Sharks on Saturday.
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 beleaguered rugby union.
The game's Southern Hemisphere powerbrokers meet in London this week to decide on a way forward for the competition, which has become lopsided, 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 (ARU) is under pressure to jettison at least one side.
Unless the Sunwolves, who finished bottom of the 18-team standings last season with just one win and one draw, improve their standard, they could also become a casualty.