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ESPN SCRUM / ESPNscrum Columnist
Brett McKay
Brett McKay | Columnist Index
One of the new breed of Australian online rugby writers, Brett McKay joins ESPNscrum.com having developed a popular presence on sports opinion site The Roar. He also tweets from @BMcSport.
Scrum5
Australian sides need to find ruthless streak
Brett McKay
March 3, 2014
There may be cause for concern in Christchurch after consecutve losses for the Crusaders

Round 3 was one dominated by the home sides, with six of the seven games won by the teams playing in front of their home crowds. And yet funnily enough, the home crowd behind the losing side, the Western Force, made that much noise in the closing stage, you'd have thought they did win!

Here are the talking points from the Round 3, as I saw them. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

Blowing away a team early is great, but...

Brumbies' Henry Speight breaks through Western Forces' Nick Cummins, Western Force v Brumbies, Super Rugby, Round Three, nib Stadium, March 1, 2014
Henry Speight and the Brumbies failed to gain a bonus point against the Western Force © Getty Images
Enlarge

It'd be wonderful if Australian teams went on with the task and really ran up a score.

The Saturday night Australian conference double header is the case in point: the Waratahs opened up their account in the third minute of the game, and had the Reds on the ropes by the 34th minute when they led 19-0. Even that should probably have been more, had Bernard Foley not pulled a fairly kickable first conversion of the night to the left.

Over in Perth, the scoreboard attendants looked to be in for a busy night, when by the 23rd minute, the Brumbies had run in three converted tries against the Force, to lead 21-0. This should also have been more; Nic White sprayed his first penalty goal shot of the night, too.

So if there's a criticism of either team - and this is probably aimed more at the Brumbies, if I'm honest - it's that they didn't really put the opposition away. On that start, the Brumbies should really have secured the fourth try bonus point well before half time (60% of both first half possession and territory suggests they had plenty of opportunity), and kicked away in the second half somewhere toward cricket score territory.

For whatever reason - and an improved second half showing from the Force is one - the Brumbies took the foot off after the break, and though they were never really threatened, they never really looked like adding to their tally, either. Yes, it is only the first week of March, but as I mentioned last week, the tightness of the competition come July means that all advantages at this time of year should really be taken.

The same goes for the Waratahs. Kurtley Beale scored their fourth try of the night inside 48 minutes, which Foley converted. Yet the intensity dropped right out of their game completely from there on, and even with both benches cleared early, only six points were added in the final half hour.

It's a small quibble at this time of year, but teams will have to find their ruthless streak to truly become a competition force.

Concerns in Crusader-land?

Crusaders flanker Richie McCaw watches from the bench after suffering a thumb injury, Blues v Crusaders, Super Rugby, Eden Park, Auckland, February 28, 2014
How will Richie McCaw's absence affect the Crusaders? © Getty Images
Enlarge

Again, we are only three rounds and in many cases only two games in, but at which point do the red and black faithful in and around Christchurch start pulling out the stress balls and worry beads?

Pushed passes, poor option-taking, missed tackles, midfield metres conceded waaaay too easily, rushed exits from their own red zone; the Crusaders' lacklustre performance against the resurgent Blues had it all.

In all my time watching the various guises of Super Rugby, I cannot recall the Crusaders looking more unsettled, more uncertain about themselves, than they did against the Blues.

Mass backline changes game to game already, a new second row combination, what feels like a revolving door in the backrow, a star All Black starting from the bench, and some serious goal-kicking yips all point to a squad struggling to find their feet.

And it's not unusual for the Crusaders to start seasons slowly; the last three seasons saw the Crusaders in the bottom half of the table at the end of the Round 3, and last year they were 10th at the same point, before storming home to almost snare the New Zealand conference.

It would, of course, be naive and even a touch foolish to write them off after just two games, but it's fair to say a lot of improvement is needed from them to recapture form. And with no Championship since 2008, these concerns will only grow louder if this current vein of form takes time to resolve itself.

Did scrum feeds look a bit straighter this week?

There's good reason for that. SANZAR Game Manager and former top referee, Lyndon Bray, gave a lengthy interview to www.superrugby.com mid-last week, in which he put the spotlight firmly on No.9s and referees competition-wide to fix up this one small area of the game that had descended into a joke in recent years.

On the topic of scrum-feeding, Bray gave a none-too-subtle reminder of last year's IRB push to clean up this aspect of the game, when he said, "I thought some of the number 9s were very poor in their feed [in the opening rounds]. We largely ignored it, which is not good enough. So one of the key messages going into Round 3 is that we need to get stronger on committing the number 9s to a proper feed and forcing hookers to hook for the ball."

Overall, my perception throughout Round 3 was that scrum feeds were a lot better, though more penalties could still have been awarded. At one stage on Saturday night, Glenn Jackson was virtually looking through Will Genia's legs for one scrum, yet did nothing as Genia fed the ball almost directly to James Horwill.

SANZAR maintain that the 'thou shalt feed straight' edict was delivered to coaches and players in the pre-season, yet the message clearly needed to be re-stated.

In all this, there's one major question that sticks out: why were referees ignoring obvious infringements?

Fuglistaller yellow creates a dangerous precedent

It was a genuinely puzzling decision in an otherwise fine performance from Australian referee Angus Gardner, in Melbourne on Friday night.

In the 50th minute of the Rebels-Cheetahs clash, on a defensive scrum deep inside their 22, Cheetahs' reserve flanker Jean Cook illegally grabbed the jersey of Rebels opensider, Scott Fuglistaller, who was trying to drive through with the Rebels pack. Attempting to free himself of the hold, Fuglistaller twice pushed or punched down on Cook's arm, before unleashing an uppercut into the Cheetah's body, and followed up with another couple of 'chop punches' down onto Cook's arm again.

The Cheetahs won the scrum, kicked downfield, whereby the Rebels quickly found themselves on attack again, and eventually held up over the line. When ruling on the held up try, Gardner called time off to acknowledge what was obviously a TMO suggestion of foul play. Numerous replays were shown, and discussions between officials had, before Gardner called Fuglistaller out.

"I understand he's grabbed you," Gardner told Fuglistaller, "but there's no excuse for lashing out with a punch."

Fuglistaller copped the yellow card, but Gardner then awarded the penalty to the Cheetahs, meaning the second infringement trumped the first. If ever there was a case where a yellow card was awarded, but the original penalty still stands, this was it.

It essentially means that flankers, if they're willing to take one (or six, as Cook did) for the team, have a licence to illegally bind on their opposing number, in the hope that a similar reaction as Fuglistaller's is the result, where his only real crime, evidently, was the uppercut.

If the Finals started tomorrow, who's the title favourite?

I mentioned last week that Super Rugby in 2014 was already a tipping nightmare, with surprise results following lacklustre performances. I mentioned over the weekend on Twitter, too, that you'd have been a brave punter to have predicted a top six after Round 3 that included the Lions, Highlanders, and Rebels.

So if the finals were starting tomorrow, who would be the favourites? Is the Waratahs' impressive start trumped by the more complete game of the Jake White Sharks? Is it actually the Chiefs playing more closely to the antirational knockout rugby we see in the finals?

And what about the wildcard spots, who would fill them?

Could the Lions, Highlanders, and Rebels be genuinely thought of as top six teams? Have the Blues shown enough in one and a half games to suggest they could be a dark horse? Has there been a changing of the guard in South Africa, and are the Bulls and Stormers a long way off past glories? And if there is three Australian teams pushing to be contenders, are the Brumbies or Reds most likely to take that third spot?

Obviously, titles aren't won in March, but the current form of some teams makes for really interesting discussion.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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