Sydney (AFP) – Talking points after the rugby Test series between New Zealand and France, Australia and Ireland and Japan against Italy and Georgia.
– All Blacks blueprint –
New Zealand produced glimpses of the speed game they are trying to perfect before they begin the defence of their world crown in Japan next year.
When it comes off, they proved near unstoppable as evidenced by the tally of 19 tries for and only four against in their 3-0 series whitewash of France.
But when France controlled the breakdown — as they did several times in the series — the world champions lost their attacking structure and seemed to drift aimlessly in possession, while relying on a sound defensive pattern to keep them out of serious trouble.
The All Blacks also showed their depth with 10 changes including four new caps for the final Test — when they still managed to blow away France 49-14.
– France feeling bleu –
France may have felt miffed about refereeing decisions that went against them in all three Tests but it was the speed of the All Blacks and not the quality of the officiating that cost them the series.
Les Bleus found a positive in being able to control the opening skirmishes in each match. They were the dominant power in the first half of the first and last Tests, and the second half of the second Test.
But the negative came when the All Blacks put their foot to the floor. France, and their much vaunted defence, simply could not live with a New Zealand side in full flow.
Coach Jacques Brunel said he realised that keeping pace with the All Blacks was the prime challenge, but he added: “Whether anyone else is capable of that, I don’t know.”
– No reprieve for Cheika’s Wallabies –
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was so incensed by the refereeing in Saturday’s series-deciding loss to Ireland that he invited French referee Pascal Gauzere to the post-match press conference to explain his decisions. “I invited him to come to the presser but he didn’t want to,” Cheika told reporters.
“You guys have seen what happened out there, you saw the decisions, the only people who can answer the questions are the referees, not me.”
The aggrieved reaction highlights, as much as anything, Cheika’s shattering disappointment at losing a second straight home series, which extends a miserable run for Australian rugby just over a year ahead of the World Cup.
The Wallabies were battered 3-0 by England a year ago and they have now lost 2-1 against an Ireland team which was only at full strength for two of the games. Ireland’s last away victory against Australia was in 1979.
The good news for Australia was game-changing flanker David Pocock’s successful return from sabbatical. But with Australian sides also struggling in Super Rugby, the pressure is on to get back to winning ways.
– ‘I know you hate me’ –
Johnny Sexton underlined his importance to Ireland as he was again their match-winner in Saturday’s dramatic 20-16 triumph in Sydney.
The Leinster fly-half kicked five from six as the Six Nations champions secured a 2-1 series victory, including a vital penalty one minute from time as the Wallabies pressed for the winning score.
Sexton, who took over the captaincy after a first-half injury to Peter O’Mahony, also had a frank exchange with Pascal Gauzere when he told the French referee: “I know you hate me but you have to talk to me.”
Coach Joe Schmidt’s Ireland lost the first Test in the absence of the unflappable Sexton, who has been instrumental in their rise to number two in the Test rankings.
Months after completing the Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations, Ireland have now won a three-Test series in the southern hemisphere for the first time, an experience that will buoy their hopes of a maiden World Cup win next year.
– World Cup hosts on track –
Japan stunned the rugby world at the last World Cup in 2015 when they toppled two-time champions South Africa in their opening game before going on to win two more pool games. But Japan’s momentum stalled after that watershed tournament under current England coach Eddie Jones.
Delays in naming their coaching staff meant the Brave Blossoms struggled initially, but last weekend’s 28-0 blanking of Georgia capped a fine month of home Tests that suggests the 2019 World Cup hosts are finally on the right track.
After a worrying dip following the arrival of Kiwi coach Jamie Joseph, Japan have shown real improvement over the past year, most notably in a 23-23 draw with France in Paris last November in a game they should have won.
“I’m really proud of the team and what we have achieved in June,” said former All Black Joseph, whose team split a two-game series with Italy earlier this month. “In the past year we have come a long way.”
That growth will give Japan renewed confidence that they can at least threaten to emerge from their group at next year’s World Cup on home soil.