Australians face a sobering reality
In the glow of the World Cup Final, and coming into the new and enlarged Super Rugby season, there was much anticipation about a strong Australian conference showing in 2016.
And when the Brumbies put the Hurricanes to the sword (52-10) in Round One, that anticipation quickly evolved into outright expectation.
The Brumbies and Waratahs had been in the play-offs for the last two seasons, and the Brumbies one more before that, and thus, they were going to be there or thereabouts once again in 2016.
And after showing some very promising mid-season signs last year, 2016 was going to be the year the Melbourne Rebels took the next step as proper play-off contenders.
But six rounds into the new season, the RWC hangover has rather rapidly disappeared.
There's nothing more sobering that seeing play-off chances fading before your eyes, and that has been the reality for the Australian rugby fan in recent weeks.
In being so clinically demolished by the Chiefs, and on their home turf where they'd lost only four times going back to the start of the 2014 season, the Brumbies quickly realised that their dominant set piece and breakdown game still needs some attack finesse against the genuinely top sides.
Likewise, in losing at home to the Rebels, and without even picking up the gun, never mind firing a shot, the Waratahs were left with a very obvious question mark over their 2016 credentials.
There were never ever grandiose claims or expectations made about the Queensland Reds or the Western Force, which is probably just as well based on the first six weeks of the competition.
The Reds finally bit the bullet and sacked Richard Graham two weeks into the season, a belated admission that the process that "scoured the globe" for candidates – yet still appointed the coach with a career record of winning less than thirty percent of games – was somewhat flawed.
The Reds have, at different points, shown that they have arguably one of the best scrums in the competition. But as much as they'd like to, you're not going to win many games just by scrummaging.
Despite some very talented players, the Reds have offered very little in attack in 2016, and it will be a surprise if they can rise as high as mid-table this season.
The rebuild is on in earnest, but until the Reds sort out their coaching situation, they're just treading water.
The Western Force, on the other hand, appeared to have recruited well for 2016, and hopes for an improvement on a dismal showing in 2015 seemed well-founded.
Sadly, the loss of flyhalf Jono Lance after just a couple of games has seen their attacking shape disappear as well, and even with a spirited showing last weekend against the Highlanders in Dunedin, it's hard to see them rising from the bottom third of the table.
The Waratahs are in a similar position after five games as was the case in their Championship-winning season of 2014, but I don't think anyone really thinks they're on anything like the same track. The 'Tahs are the side most affected by the post-RWC departures, and Australian rugby's appreciation of Sekope Kepu's work at tighthead has been magnified this season, as the Waratahs scrum is destroyed on a weekly basis.
It's quite alarming, the way the Waratahs' scrum has regressed since the departure of Kepu, and the promotion of the renowned scrummaging coach, Mario Ledesma to the Wallabies set-up. And it's very difficult to see how the Waratahs could even scrape into the last wildcard place with a forward pack on roller skates.
The Melbourne Rebels are showing some signs that their star is on the rise, and with coach Tony McGahan starting to earn some serious rewards from his young group. They copped a touch-up at the hands of the Highlanders a few weeks back, but responded really well, and beat the Waratahs with a clinical display that any of the top teams would be proud of.
They do need to start showing that they can win games like this consistently though, and if they can, the Rebels can certainly push for a maiden play-offs berth. Their 21-17 win over the Waratahs was pretty indicative of where both sides are in 2016.
The Brumbies, then, remain the major – and possibly 'only' – source of Australian play-off hopes this season. The suspension this week of David Pocock is undoubtedly a blow, particularly with Jarrad Butler out injured too, but the Brumbies' depth is pretty reasonable.
Their set piece remains strong, and though they showed their expansive ways in the opening rounds, this seems to have been dulled during and the since their South African tour. The sooner they rediscover their attack, the sooner they'll be locked in as the Australian conference champions.
So in a season where we expected two, and hoped we might squeeze a third team in the eight-team play-offs this season, it's been a rough reality check for Australian rugby fans of late.
But still, if we've learned nothing over the history of Super Rugby, it's that anything can and will happen.
By Brett McKay
* Brett McKay is an Australian rugby writer and commentator, who has sat through more Bledisloe Cup and World Cup Final losses than any human should have to endure, and is desperately hoping for a change of luck soon. For regular musings on rugby, sport, and all manner of life's trivialities, you'll find Brett on Twitter at @BMcSport