By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia head to Italy with coach Michael Cheika under renewed pressure after their bid for a perfect tour of Europe ended at the first hurdle with a dismal loss to Wales.
Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle had said nothing less than three wins against the Welsh, Italy and England could be deemed a 'pass mark' for the Wallabies, who managed only two victories in the Rugby Championship and lost a series against Ireland on home soil for the first time in 39 years.
Yet their performance at Millennium Stadium on Saturday inspired little confidence back home that they could manage a win against lowly Italy, let alone Eddie Jones's England, with the clock ticking towards next year's World Cup in Japan.
Having already been dragged over the coals twice by the media after back-to-back losses against New Zealand and a maiden home defeat by Argentina, Cheika and his staff faced a fresh round of criticism from Australian pundits on Monday.
The Australian's rugby writer Wayne Smith wrote that the performance "was so lame and tired that Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle will be forced to make changes post-tour".
"The Wallabies can't continue through to the World Cup while being so poorly coached."
In a season littered with negative statistics, the Wallabies collected another in Cardiff by surrendering their winning streak of 13 matches against Warren Gatland's Wales.
Perhaps most gallingly for home fans was that their team threw away their chances in the 9-6 defeat.
Awarded two second half penalties, captain Michael Hooper waved away both shots on goal but the push for tries came to nothing, with prop Allan Alaalatoa spilling the ball in a maul and Tolu Latu overcooking a line-out throw to lose possession.
"This test was turgid and forgettable, as the playing standards were so low, but it was an international an average Wallabies line-up would have won, as there were countless second half chances," respected rugby pundit Greg Growden fumed on ESPN's website (espn.com.au).
"But this team is well short of even an average category."
Rugby Australia have ignored calls to sack Cheika or tweak his staff throughout a season that has yielded only three wins from 11 tests but a loss to Italy in Padova on Saturday could make the coach's position untenable.
Wallabies number eight David Pocock painted a grim picture of a team struggling for confidence a year out from the World Cup.
“It's all mental,” he said.
"Physically everyone's pretty strong and fit so it's all about the mental side of things and as players we know that and we're working on that."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)