Australia coach Eddie Jones has launched a spirited defence of his under-fire captain George Gregan ahead of their Tri-Nations match against South Africa.
Gregan's passing has come under fire
Gregan, capped 87 times, has endured savage criticism since the Wallabies' record 50-21 defeat by New Zealand - their third successive loss.
"It's a populist view to attack George," said Jones, who is also under pressure after only 12 wins in 23 matches as Australia coach.
"Whenever we don't play well, George seems to be the first one attacked.
"We need some objective commentary on players' performance. George always seems to be attacked in an emotional way."
Jones admitted Gregan's form has been mixed recently but insisted the Zambian-born player was working hard to rectify that.
"He probably hasn't been at his best over the last three or four games and there have been a number of factors that have contributed to that," Jones said.
"Certainly George takes responsibility for that as does
the rest of the team. He needs to improve aspects of his game, but he's working very hard to do it."
Jones maintained Gregan retained the strong support of his team-mates, and that he would not be distracted by criticism.
"Any player who could put up with what he's put up with over the last two years in terms of criticism and still get out there and perform at a high level has got to be a pretty tough little bloke, and he is."
Average passing speed
G Gregan (Aus) 0.60 secs
J v.d Westhuizen (SA) 0.63secs
J Marshall (NZ) 0.67 secs
S Devine (NZ) 0.67secs
Gregan has been particularly criticised for a perceived slowness in his passing, although one study revealed he released the ball quicker than his Tri-Nations rivals.
"We've had all this rubbish about George not being a fast
passer, and players taking a step before they pass," Jones said.
"The reality is that in modern-day rugby most half-backs step when they pass."
Jones, despite Australia's recent run, is convinced his side can still win the World Cup when the tournament kicks off in 10 weeks.
But Australian Rugby Union chief John O'Neill has already downplayed expectations, insisting a semi-final spot would be a "very good outcome" for the defending champions.
"You've always got to contemplate the prospect that we don't win the World Cup," O'Neill said. "From our perspective that's always been the icing on the cake.
"If we don't win it's not the end of the world, it's not a
catastrophe. Our legacy projects will continue, our investment in the game will continue."
Jones, unsurprisingly, put a different slant on matters.
"We're going to have six teams, if everything goes right, competing for four spots in the semi-final, and the differential between those top teams is going to be as
little as one or two per cent," Jones added.
"John makes his own call. Our aspiration is to win the World Cup."