Wallabies send a decent message of intent
Brett McKay
June 9, 2014
Brett McKay and Andy Withers discuss the weekend's talking points

Depending on which flag you wave, the first week of International rugby south of the equator confirmed and/or debunked everything you know to be true when the northern nations head south. Slow starts from overwhelming favourites, weakened teams on the end of a thumping, home-town refereeing, surprising results by any measure; it had it all.

Regardless, here are the talking points from the Tests down this way over the weekend. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

Wallabies send a decent message of intent

When you watch a really one-sided game, like the Australia-France Test in Brisbane was, it's often hard to gauge whether the lopsided result is because the dominant team was indeed so dominant or whether the dominated team was so ordinary.

Australia 50-23 France (Australia only)

We can say the Wallabies produced one of their best season-opening displays in the past five or so years. The victory was their first in a season-opening game since they accounted for Fiji 49-3 in Canberra in 2010, and, regardless of what you make of the French display, they played very, very well. The forwards laid the perfect platform for Nic White to clear quickly all night, which in turn freed up some wonderful play from the backs. The midfield combination of White, Bernard Foley, and Matt Toomua looked like it had played 50 games together, while the outside men profited from in space created for them.

The lineout was excellent, and the forwards all did a good job around the park. Flankers Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper got through a mountain of work, as did lock Sam Carter, who on debut topped the tackle count and featured highly in the carries column, too.

The Wallabies maintained their shape well throughout the match, and made good use of the offload game that has served New South Wales Waratahs so well this year. Most importantly, they didn't back off when it became obvious France weren't offering much resistance. This was an important step in the evolution of the McKenzie Wallabies; they will certainly get sterner tests from better opposition this season, but this was just about the perfect start to an international season.

France disappointing, but that only makes the task tougher

As good as the Wallabies were, it's hard to be anything but disappointed in what France served up in their first outing since the Six Nations. Yes, their side was missing a host of front-liners, but that's still no real excuse for their lacklustre performance.

McKenzie pleased with performace

What this means for the second Test in Melbourne next week - as is generally the case with French sides on tour - is anyone's guess. They could return all the players rested this week and play as poorly. They could just as likely become the giant-killers that very nearly stole a Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park after losing to Tonga in the pool stage.

And so you would have to think bringing the likes of Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles into the back-row would massively change the dynamic of the French breakdown - particularly if Damien Chouly retains the starting berth, as he should after such a commanding performance in a well-beaten side.

As disappointing as Wesley Fofana was, what kind of effect might the return of Mathieu Bastareaud alongside him make? Did a month's worth of not playing hinder Freddie Michalak so much as to demand Remi Tales' inclusion in Melbourne?

The Wallabies may well be asking themselves the same sort of questions already, and it is folly to expect anything less than a complete French turnaround within a week.

England's Eden Park outing has them tracking well for RWC2015

As if it weren't already the case, Wallabies fans watching the "curtain-raiser" in Auckland will have noted one significant factor in the England performance: the Rugby World Cup pool match at Twickenham on October 3 next year just got all that much tougher again.

New Zealand 20-15 England (Australia only)

ESPNscrum colleague Tom Hamilton, currently in New Zealand with the England tour noted, "[England] maintained all week they had a chance of upsetting this rampaging All Black applecart and they very nearly did it. Had Marland Yarde avoided the yellow card, they may just have had enough about them to close it out."

And they're the key words right there: "they very nearly did it."

Many a team has lobbed at Eden Park in the professional era and come nowhere near as close as England did to breaking the All Blacks' decades-long streak.

The English performance across the park was very impressive - worryingly so, for these Australian eyes. Their back-row was particularly outstanding, which is not something that happens often against the best team in the world. What James Haskell lacked in the running metres of Ben Morgan and skipper Chris Robshaw, he made up for in defence by making the same number of tackles as did his counterparts combined.

I have to admit I've not seen a lot of fly-half Freddie Burns, but he steered his team well and kicked superbly from the tee - including one from halfway that cleared the dead-in-goal line. For a third- or fourth-choice No.10, I've seen a lot worse than Burns.

The performance certainly bodes well for England over the next 18 months or so. If they can push the world champions this close on the opposite side of the world, how dangerous a prospect will they become on home soil?

All Blacks get the result, but won't be overly happy

The three New Zealand Super Rugby sides still in contention are still having up-and-down times of it, so it's not altogether surprising that the All Blacks were a bit rusty in their first outing of the season. Even after the training camps over the last few weeks, the combinations still looked a bit off for the All Blacks; and it will be interesting to see it Steve Hanson does any tweaking over the remaining two Tests in this window.

Hansen expects special series

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw said immediately after the game that you should always expect a tough time in Test rugby, but his underlying message was that his side had a lot of improvement to find before they could think about blowing teams away.

The ominous point in all this is that the All Blacks won. Even when they'd been tested, and arguably bettered for 78 minutes and change, they still found the play to ice the game. They won't be thrilled about the method, but the fact they can be so far off their best and still win is nothing to sneeze at.

As if it weren't already obvious, international teams still have to do a lot more than just catch the All Blacks on an off day.

Another week, another debate about refereeing

Sometimes I wonder if my ability to not let the refereeing affect the way I watch rugby is a blessing or a curse. I watched and enjoyed both games in Auckland and Brisbane for what they were; one a brutal contest that went down the wire, the other a wonderful display of attacking intent.

So when a Perth-based Twitter follower of mine asked me something, I had to re-check the tape because I'd obviously missed something.

And I still can't really work it out.

England won the share of territory and possession, yet also conceded more turnovers and more handling errors. If scrums were the issue, well they've been a lottery for years. New Zealand won a World Cup on the back of the breakdown and defensive patterns, and they are unbeaten at Eden Park in nearly 20 years to the day, so what's the surprise that they were so effective again?

So where exactly did Nigel Owens cost England this game? And I'd genuinely like to know, because I still can't work it out. And nor can I work why tweets like "He should be good for free drinks in Auckland tonight!" dominated my timeline. If the refereeing were as bad as was made out, then why was it still 15-all with 90 seconds to play?

Yes Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith might each have been given a yellow card at different points of the game; decisions, had they been made by Owens, that would have gifted England a one-man advantage for one-quarter of the game. But those decisions, like that to sin-bin Marland Yarde, often are a matter of interpretation.

It wasn't quite so bad in Brisbane, given the scoreline, but the decision to award Michael Hooper's try just before half-time, and particularly the TMO telling Craig Joubert "I just want to show you another angle" were seen as a supposedly clear case of ignoring a forward pass from Tevita Kuridrani.

I'm really not sure why finding the conclusive television angle that showed the ball going backwards from Kuridrani's hands is the sinister move. If the inconclusive views led Joubert and assistant referee Chris Pollock to stick with their instinct, and then a different angle showed that to be incorrect, isn't that the point of the TMO and the use of replays to aid decisions?

Maybe it's just me, and my cursed ability to just focus on the rugby. But I can't help but wonder if the officials get a bad rap sometimes because it's becoming the thing you do after a game - if not during the game.

Discuss the talking points via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

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