Ben Smith is a mutant super-freak, I tells ya
June 23, 2014
Scrum5: we can't wait for Bledisloe Cup but we have to; meanwhile, we'll enjoy Ben Smith in Super Rugby
Australia and New Zealand completed their series sweeps over France and England, respectively, and the methods employed either side of the Tasman ensured all eyes now focus on the first Bledisloe Cup clash of the year.
Here are the talking points from the last weekend of June Internationals, with Super Rugby all set to resume next weekend. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Positive intent has to be the Wallabies blueprint
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie summed the performance up pretty well in the aftermath of the 39-13 win in the afternoon sun in Sydney, saying: "I think it was certainly better in terms of the attack side of it, but we were probably over enthusiastic today a little bit. But I thought it was a pretty good effort, we dominated possession, territory, and opportunity. We probably didn't make the most of every opportunity but I was very happy about the intent. We didn't confuse anyone with what we were trying to do; it was just down to execution and the French defence."
Australia 39-13 France (Australia only)%]
And that is certainly true. There was no confusion of the Australian tactics, as they looked to forget about the Melbourne game plan and recapture the expansiveness of Brisbane and the 2013 European tour from the outset.
Though they did again drift into periods of playing too laterally and not engaging the French defence, the Wallabies reaped the benefits whenever they returned to their main plan of turning inside balls, following the ball-carrier, and interchange play between the forwards and backs.
McKenzie spoke of maintaining their average of four tries per game, and though the number is immaterial, the focus on playing to the strengths of the players certainly is not. The players themselves want to get out there and just play some footy, and the Wallabies as an outfit look so much better when they do.
Whether it's enough to beat the All Blacks remains to be seen; indeed, we'll find out in eight weeks. But while building the ability to play different styles to suit different situations is important, it's just as important that McKenzie sticks with what is working well.
Australia's fans enjoy Saturday afternoon rugby in the Sydney sunshine © Getty Images
Genuine French concerns or just the end of a long season?
What to make of France over these past three weeks? It really feels like it's difficult to judge them, but is that because it's the end of a long season for the players or is it because Philippe Saint-Andre might have a real battle on his hands to reinvigorate Les Bleus before the Rugby World Cup?
Certainly, they were disappointing in Brisbane, obviously affected by the loss or non-selection of players who took part in the Top 14 Final the previous weekend. They were markedly better in Melbourne, where their defensive tactics sucked the Wallabies into playing the game the way France wanted it played.
Come Sydney, though, and with the players needing to produce just one more performance before putting the feet up for a little bit, it really did look like more than a few had already mentally checked out of the team hotel and were heading toward the departure lounge.
So it becomes hard to tell if the Melbourne performance illustrates France's capabilities or was anomalous. The set-piece was good all tour, but you can't say the same of their breakdown performance, and, overall, they asked few questions of the Australian defence.
And it's hard to see where any great improvements - other than attitude and passion - might be found. Obviously injury affected the make-up of their squad, but will returning stars such as first-choice hooker Dimitri Szarzewski and surprisingly overlooked fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc really make that much difference? It's probably a "watch this space" conclusion. It's hard to judge France at the best of times.
All Blacks: just stop it ...
It was always going to be a case of England waking the sleeping giant, and so it was the case when the All Blacks machine rolled out a damn-near perfect first half of rugby in Hamilton after less-than-ideal performances in Auckland and Dunedin.
New Zealand 36-13 England (Australia only)%]
New Zealand bolted to a 29-6 half-time lead, courtesy of a brace of tries from Julian Savea, a wonderful return to form from Aaron Cruden, and an English midfield defensive system so generous that describing it as "turnstile-like' would indicate some degree of resistance. But the action was far from one-way in the second half after a host of England personnel changes at the break, and the final All Blacks try - Savea's third - didn't come until after the full-time siren.
The win takes their streak to 17, equalling that of South Africa in 1997-1998, and the All Blacks in the late 1960s, and victory in the first Bledisloe Test on August 17 in Sydney will give them the record of the most consecutive wins by a top-tier rugby nation. (Cyprus hold the overall record, if you were wondering, with their win over Hungary last month taking them to 23 spanning almost six years.)
Only a brave punter will back against the All Blacks recording the record-breaking 18th win, judged on that first-half form, although others will point to England's efforts in the second stanza giving reasonable hope to the confident Wallabies. New Zealand certainly haven't had it all their own way in this June series, but, as I mentioned last week, they find ways to win even when a long way from their best.
Suggestions on how to stop the streak can be sent to E. McKenzie c/. ARU headquarters, Sydney. Please.
England head home far from disgraced
Two English football sides will land at Heathrow in the coming week, both having bowed out of their respective forays on the other side of the world in straight sets; the soccer players may not be welcomed home so warmly, but Stuart Lancaster's team can hold their heads high because they performed strongly on their tour of New Zealand even though the series score reads 0-3 with an aggregate nine-tries-to-four deficit.
Coming off a strong Six Nations showing, England took it to the All Blacks for five of six halves of rugby; only a near-flawless first half from new Zealand on Saturday night put any distance between the two sides, and England deserve credit for preventing the cricket score that threatened at the break.
If there's one criticism of the English campaign, they did appear affected by the constant changes that happened Test-to-Test. The back-row, especially, looked brilliant in Auckland yet it was tinkered with in both subsequent Tests. Midfield stability was lacking, too. Nevertheless, depth is something Lancaster has plenty of, even more so if you factor in the Junior World Championship victory in New Zealand, too. They may not be Rugby World Cup favourites, but England will feature heavily on home turf next year.
Ben Smith is playing as if powered by Kryptonite © Getty Images
You might recall that I rambled smittenly last week about the abilities and possible super-human status that Ben Smith possesses, but I introduced it all with: "One other thing's for sure, the All Blacks selectors have an interesting quandary on their hands about what to do with Israel Dagg as a fullback option from here on ..."
Well, I no longer think the selectors have quandary on their hands. Ben Smith just has to be the New Zealand fullback for the foreseeable future after another masterclass in Hamilton. Dagg is a fine, fine player, but Smith is taking freakish deeds to new heights.
And here's but one example, from the 24th minute. Our play-by-play commentary recorded the passage of play like this: "24 - Ashton with a good interception sets England on a counter, Brown kicks, gets one back, runs back and is held up. And then New Zealand counter. Brown opted to run the ball with two All Blacks in front of him and no support. Bad decision making."
There's only so much detail you can fit into an in-game text comment, but here's what we couldn't note down such was the breathless pace of play: Smith watched Brown's kick go into touch inside the New Zealand 22m; took a quick lineout throw for himself; kicked well downfield to Brown, who then ran; was one of the "two All Blacks in front"; and dived on the loose ball that popped out of the tackle. Phenomenal play.
Moments later, a deft little Smith pass put Cory Jane into space in the lead-up to Aaron Smith's first try. And then, only a few minutes later again, Ben Smith's little dummy and acceleration into space past Marland Yarde put Aaron Smith away for his second try. And Ben Smith threw the last pass for Julian Savea's second try, too, before many had even sat down in the stadium.
Anyway, enough; I'm blushing. Ben Smith - mutant super-freak, I tells ya.
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