WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Queensland Reds vs. New South Wales Waratahs would usually be one of the most anticipated and hard-fought derbies of the Super Rugby season, but instead might only serve to measure the depth of the malaise into which Australian rugby is sinking.
Matches between the neighboring provinces, across all codes, are rich with tradition. The fierce inter-state rivalry between Queensland and New South Wales rugby teams of old has been carried into Super Rugby and perpetuated by the Reds and Waratahs.
But Saturday's match, which will be the only meeting of the teams in the regular season, may highlight how far the teams have fallen from their peaks — in 2011 when the Reds won the Super Rugby title and 2014 when the Waratahs were champions.
The Waratahs' loss last weekend to South Africa's Kings marked one of the lowest ebbs in the Sydney-based team's history. While the defeat crystalized attention on the on-field problems, the crowd that attended the match — barely more than 10,000 — was the smallest for a home match in Waratahs' history and showed the teams' loss of form is having ramifications off-field.
That has wider implications for Australian Rugby which is experiencing a decline in audience share, losing ground against rugby league, Australian Rules football and soccer.
The Reds and Waratahs enter the match with 2-6 records, respectively in second and fourth places in an Australian conference in which no team has a positive record. The ACT Brumbies lead the conference with a 3-5 record.
The Waratahs are hoping the derby context of the match may at least provide the urgency its players need before their chances of reaching the playoffs become hopeless.
"We're playing our greatest traditional rival," coach Daryl Gibson said. "A lot has been said about what we represent and I think we couldn't have found a better opposition than the Reds this week.
"We go into the game with similar issues, the fate for either one of us — it's a must-win for both of us. Conseques are very much likely to be (the loser is) out of the conference."
Gibson, a former All Blacks center who stepped up to the head coaching role at the Waratahs this season after acting as assistant to Michael Cheika, is under pressure to hold his position, though the club's board this week gave him its endorsement.
Chief executive Andrew Hore said it would not be fair to hold Gibson solely responsible for the team's failures.
"Don't hang out one bloke for what is a number of issues both external and internal that we need to change — don't hold one man accountable for all of that, that's not right," Hore said. "We are really comfortable that issues have been identified that need to be put right for what we believe will lead to better performance."
In other 10th-round matches, the Highlanders open the weekend against the Cape Town-based Stormers who are coming off their heaviest-ever loss to the Crusaders.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders, unbeaten after eight matches, move to South Africa where they face the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and the Pretoria-based Bulls in back-to-back weeks before returning home for tough matches against the Hurricanes and Chiefs.
After narrowly losing its last three matches in South Africa, Argentina's Jaguares return to Buenos Aires, where they are unbeaten this season, to host the Durban-based Sharks.
The Chiefs also end a three-match road trip to play Japan's Sunwolves in Hamilton, and the Western Force are at home to the Johannesburg-based Lions. The Kings host the Melbourne Rebels in Port Elizabeth and the Brumbies face the Auckland-based Blues on Sunday.