24 Jun 2018

All Blacks series victory: Attention goes on refs not players

6:14 pm on 24 June 2018

Opinion - Last night's 49-14 win over France set up the All Blacks' Test season, but did it really tell us anything we didn't know before?

Well, not really, but there was enough in there to discuss before the really tough games start in August.

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Photo: Photosport

Damian McKenzie's turn at first five in Dunedin certainly answered a few critics, but it is worth remembering that he couldn't actually make much happen last week when he replaced Beauden Barrett after 10 minutes.

So while his performance last night should be widely lauded, he is much more likely to be thrust into a pressure situation rather than have the knowledge that he'll be starting a Test match.

But, on a positive note, his goal kicking was outstanding and he's certainly found a niche running onto some perfectly timed passes from Aaron Smith. Having Sonny Bill Williams outside him gave McKenzie a potent attacking weapon, and it seemed like the big man was glad to be back on the pitch - at one point galloping downfield holding the pill like a tennis ball in one hand.

One man who pushed his case as an able replacement when called upon was Scott Barrett. In for three starts in place of the injured Brodie Retallick, the workhorse of the three brothers turned in his best performance in an All Black jersey in Dunedin, after solid games in the first two Tests.

Given that Sam Whitelock and Retallick have been head and shoulders above anyone else in the position in recent years, it is good to know that Barrett's potential can translate into consistent form to back them up.

However, for all the positives that come out of this series between the All Blacks and France, it's highly unlikely that it will be remembered for the right reasons.

Refereeing is under the spotlight more than ever, and all it took was one strangely inconsistent call in the first Test to focus the attention on the men with the whistle rather than the players. Luke Pearce's call to sin bin Paul Gabrillagues in the first Test, then allow Sam Cane and Ofa Tu'ungafasi to escape reprimand for hospitalising Remy Grosso caused headlines around the world, and ignited an often moronic debate about how the All Blacks get special treatment from the refs.

It meant that second Test ref Angus Gardner was under all sorts of pressure. Even though he correctly gave Benjamin Fall a red card, he ended up getting chucked under the bus by World Rugby who said he'd got it wrong. So it seems like nothing has changed there when it comes to the governing body defending the controversial decisions of their officials.

It got to the point where social media exploded last night when ref John Lacey got in the way of Baptiste Serin when McKenzie scored his first try. Serin did little to hide his displeasure at the incident after the game, displaying trademark Gallic impudence at the fact that the ref hadn't actually done anything that was outside of the rule book.

On the French side though, it's fair to say that we know as much about them as we did before the series started. They came down here without many expectations, and for the most part kept the same course they've held with the All Blacks for the better part of a decade - they play well for a wee bit, get crushed by a flurry of tries, then somehow fool everyone into thinking they'll be 'unpredictable' the next week. There are some good, young players in their set up, though.

Of course, the main things we took out of the last three weeks didn't even involve the All Blacks. The Springboks looked impressive in their series against the English, before dropping the last Test last night. Meanwhile the Irish stamped their credentials all over the Wallabies in a pulsating Test series, however the Aussies did show enough to make the first Bledisloe Cup Test interesting.

But that's not for a little while yet, so it's back to Super Rugby in the meantime.