Super pressure on Aussie rugby's new era

Australian rugby hit rock bottom in 2017.

But was it simply a one-off nightmare season, or a genuine reflection of how far the once-mighty sport has fallen in this country?

That is the core question to be answered in the new Super Rugby season, the first since the controversial move back to a streamlined 15-team competition.

The Western Force was tossed onto the SANZAAR scrapheap in response to perceived declining standards and financial concerns in Australia.

After the dramatic, drawn-out and often farcical saga that led to the Perth club's closure - and the poor crowds, low TV ratings and widespread supporter angst that came along with it - Rugby Australia needs results to justify their decision to downsize.

That means the pressure is on the NSW Waratahs, Queensland Reds, ACT Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels to stop the rot and start winning games.

All four teams - joined in the Australian conference by Japan's Sunwolves - have reason for optimism and skepticism.

The Rebels are the most intriguing case, having absorbed 12 players and coach David Wessels from the other side of the Nullarbor.

South African Wessels now has a star-studded squad at his disposal - and Melbourne the best chance in their history to break their finals duck - but with new combinations to be rolled out in just about every part of the team, they may be a work in progress through the early part of the season.

"That's the challenge for any coach. It's one thing to have names on a piece of paper," Wessels said.

"I don't really think about wins and losses... there's certain things that are going to keep me up at night and those are around work ethic, people applying themselves and wanting to win.

"If those things are aligned you know you're heading in the right direction."

The Brumbies also have a new coach in Dan McKellar, who has succeeded his long-time superior Stephen Larkham after his move to a full-time Wallabies role.

David Pocock's return from a one-year sabbatical is a major boost but the reigning Australian conference champions need to find more dynamism in attack to become a true title threat.

It's been a summer of upheaval at Ballymore, where another rookie coach - Brad Thorn - has laid down the law.

Quade Cooper and Nick Frisby have been banished, Karmichael Hunt remains in limbo, and Thorn will lean heavily on the raw talents from his NRC-winning Queensland Country squad to bring the Reds out of the doldrums.

Daryl Gibson, meanwhile, must do the same with the Waratahs after embarrassing home losses last year to the Kings and Jaguares.

His coaching career is on the line but Kurtley Beale's comeback to Super Rugby and new signings like Curtis Rona and a reborn Rob Simmons should help turn things around.

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