England and All Blacks each have much more to give
June 16, 2014
Scrum5: Brett McKay and Tom Hamilton discuss the weekend's Test action
It was tougher slog on either side of the Tasman this weekend - so much tougher, on the western side - yet the results went the same way and both series have been decided. But did the results and all the subplots solve the major questions, or just ask more?
Here are the talking points from the Tests in New Zealand and Australia. Discuss the talking points via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
England left to ponder how they lost a series 2-0
New Zealand 28-27 England (Australia only)%]
England have been so impressive over the past week and a bit. For 160 minutes-plus they've pushed the All Blacks to the very end, to the point that they would almost certainly be celebrating a series win had they have been playing anyone other than the world champions. England find themselves trailing the All Blacks by less than a converted try over the two games, and there is probably no better illustration of just how close the series has been.
Yes, it's probably a fair argument that TMO generosity allowed them to come back to within a point in Dunedin. Just as Andy Withers and I spoke in last week's podcast of Sliding Doors moments in Auckland, it's obviously impossible to know what might have been had George Ayoub held the same opinion as just about anyone watching the same replays, that Mike Brown was plain and simply held up.
Decision making cost England- Lancaster%]
And, yes, they again made unforced errors at inopportune times - but not nearly as many as in Auckland. England's attack had the All Blacks retreating regularly, and the Owen Farrell-Billy Twelvetrees midfield is certainly worth building a team around. England have been notoriously conservative in their play over the years, but they have in Farrell and Twelvetrees two playmakers willing to chance their hand.
The difference between the sides, then, is really only in the way they capitalise on opportunities. Stuart Lancaster was left frustrated at the way his team created then butchered opportunities, and that's a fair assessment. But if beating New Zealand was supposed to be easy, everyone would be doing it.
What to make of the All Blacks, then?
One thing's for sure: they won't be this generous or this far off their best when the Bledisloe Cup and The Rugby Championship rolls around in mid-August. In truth, New Zealand may not have had a better warm-up for the annual SANZAR international series for several years.
That's what Test rugby should be-McCaw%]
So many of the All Blacks either look to be off the pace, or like they're playing with something in reserve. Maybe it's down to the fact that all five franchise sides still have some serious Super Rugby left to play, resuming in a fortnight; I'd be very surprised, but …
Whatever it is, the Hillary Cup series win seems to have come on the back of good luck as much as good management. I wrote last week that I doubted they'd have been happy with how they won in Auckland, and I'd expect that is the case again in Dunedin; their peerless counter-attacking game is getting the job done, but it doesn't feel like they're creating too many opportunities themselves.
Yet they keep winning, and that's the impressive, enviable and teeth-gnashingly frustrating thing (for anyone who doesn't bleed All Black).
One other thing's for sure: the All Blacks selectors have an interesting quandary on their hands with Israel Dagg as a fullback option from here on, because ...
Ben Smith is some kind of mutant super-freak
He surely can't be human; there's just no way. Ninety-kilo fullbacks just aren't supposed to run down and wrangle 120+kg rampaging centre-cum-wingers to the ground; and they're certainly not supposed then to get to their feet and effect the completely legal, and completely brilliant pilfer!
It feels that Ben Smith gets a run every second week since we started the Scrum5 column last year. This year has, perhaps, been a quieter in the mentions department, but last year we were looking like card-carrying, flag-waving members of the Ben Smith Appreciation Society.
Not that we ever let that membership lapse, but Smith's simply superb performance on his home ground in Dunedin was a reminder of everything we've loved about him. In his first start in the All Blacks No.15 jersey, our numbers for Smith were just ridiculous: 19 runs for 127 metres put him - literally - well ahead of every other player on the park; then you throw in the six defenders beaten, a clean break, a couple of offloads, and the aforementioned turnover, for good measure.
"Outstanding" doesn't do Smith's game justice. This was a superlative-busting game from the local boy.
Ben Smith's tackle on Manu Tuilagi, and his subsequent pilfer, was match-turning © Getty Images
A completely different French beast
By the end of last week, I had come to the written and spoken conclusion that the difference between France in Brisbane and the likely impact of the wholesale changes Phillipe Saint-Andre made for Melbourne was like beating France in a World Cup pool game then having to face them in the knockout stage. The 2011 Rugby World Cup was a perfect illustration: Les Bleus beaten by Tonga were light years away from the side that very nearly left Eden Park with the Webb Ellis Trophy tucked under their arms.
Australia 6-0 France (Australia only)%]
And so it proved, again, to be the case in Melbourne.
A very proud, but undoubtedly hurting, French side gave the Wallabies precisely the sort of challenge Ewen McKenzie's squad needs to get ready for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
The intent of the French was evident from the outset, where they didn't really contest the breakdown in defence but piled in the bodies when in attack. Success on this front led to led to them contesting everything for the rest of the game, and there was a dramatic difference in the way Rabah Slimani, Yoann Maestri, Damien Chouly, and even Mathieu Basteraud moved bodies in the ruck compared with just about any of the Wallabies.
France didn't show a lot in attack, other than when countering, yet they played their game with a decent structure and to a clear plan of not playing in their own half. Their rush defence caused the Wallabies all sorts of issues all game, in much the same way the Wallabies' line speed kept the French attack on the back foot in Brisbane.
Australia take positives from narrow France win%]
In this regards, it's actually a shame the third Test in Sydney on Saturday afternoon isn't a series decider. Either way, it will be very interesting to see if the French can maintain this menacing style, and especially if Australia can work out how to counter it.
Wallabies get their sixth win on the trot
And that's probably all that can be, and needs to be, said about the 6-0 win in Melbourne. You know it's been a rough game when the post-match highlights reel included Bernard Foley winning a footrace to ground the ball. In the Wallabies' own in-goal.
Discuss the talking points via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
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