Ian Foster, if you read between the lines, has the opening two matches of The Rugby Championship against the Springboks to turn the All Blacks around.
“The future is right in these two test matches [in South Africa],” former All Black turned pundit Jeff Wilson told Sky Sports’ The Breakdown.
“If he lost both, it would be really hard, really difficult (to keep his job).”
Wilson’s comments come after two of Foster’s assistants – John Plumtree and Brad Mooar – were sacrificed following an intense six days of silence following their series loss to Ireland last month – their first home series loss in 27 years, and their fourth defeat in five matches.
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The Great All Blackout, which only intensified the scrutiny surrounding New Zealand Rugby’s stuttering leadership, saw its main spokesman protected under the rights of being a “human” as All Blacks media manager Jo Malcolm decided to cancel Foster’s end of series debrief.
“I felt he (Foster) needed a day or so to work out what he wanted to say and not just be a punching bag for the media, who lets be clear, wanted blood,” Malcolm wrote on LinkedIn.
Since then, calls for sweeping changes have only been intensified with New Zealand Rugby chief-executive Mark Robinson, Foster and captain Sam Cane all under the gun.
World Cup-winning coach Steve Hansen led the chorus of outrage, slamming the NZR board for abandoning the players while backing Foster to turn the ship around.
Former NZR CEO David Moffett also called for Robinson to resign late last week, saying the “buck stopped with him”.
Others like respected pundit Stuart Barnes have called for Cane to be replaced as captain, believing the openside flanker wouldn’t make any of the top teams in the world let alone the All Blacks.
For the time being, the NZR and All Blacks are unmoved on all three positions.
Should the All Blacks fail to win a Test over the Springboks, all three will struggle to hold their positions beyond the Rugby Championship.
The question many have is, how did the kings of rugby suddenly become a punching bag, with the NZR CEO, coach and captain all under the gun?
It was shortly after their World Cup triumph in 2015 that cracks first began to appear.
As respected pundit Rod Kafer highlighted, the All Blacks began to lose their humility after Richie McCaw and Dan Carter retired.
“One of the things I used to really admire about the All Blacks, I admired this genuine humility that they had,” Kafer said in 2016. “It was a core part of their value set, that humility.
“And I watch from afar and I get the sense that it might be a little bit forced at the moment. It’s a little bit put on.
“And it’s taken the gloss off, probably, their performance, because I genuinely love the way the All Blacks play the game — I really admire it.
“But there are other elements other than just being a winning team. “You’ve got to be a good winner and I just wonder whether the gloss is coming off.”
He added: “This change of the guard over there, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, two of the most humble human beings you will ever meet in and around rugby.
“Now it’s changed and there’s some question marks around Steve Hansen and some of the things that he’s made public.
“His big barb to Michael Cheika during the England series about Eddie Jones and how Cheik’s lost the battle — he didn’t need to come out and say that.
“It was a little bit disrespectful.”
Foster later refused to talk to Kafer ahead of the second Bledisloe Test in Auckland, after the former Wallaby said the reckless red card shot from Scott Barrett on Michael Hooper in Perth was intentional.
The arrogance continued when the NZR blew up Super Rugby, waved goodbye to its long-term ally South Africa and told their trans-Tasman neighbors they warranted just two franchises in its revamped competition following the onset of Covid-19.
Perhaps the sentiment was true, with those discussions routinely debated in Australia, but their handling left a bitter taste in the mouth for its SANZAAR allies.
“I’m faced with the decision of cutting two or three teams out of our competition and we took great offense to the way that was handled and the way we were instructed how the competition was going to come together, and I don’t think that was either fair or the right way to handle it,” McLennan said in 2020. For years, decades even, the All Blacks have swept the world away with their stunning play on the field, holding a 20-year Bledisloe Cup stranglehold over the wallabies.
But after a few defeats, the added pressure has seen the All Blacks walk away from their responsibilities to promote the game, as New Zealand commentator Scotty Stevenson, who penned Kieran Read’s autobiography, slammed the NZR and the All Blacks during a recent column forThe Spinoff.
“I have no desire to revisit the harebrained arrogance of the New Zealand national body which has, over the last decade, decimated club rugby, killed the National Provincial Championship, homogenised Super Rugby, burned Australia, Argentina and South Africa (And guess which nation’s clubs now play regularly against teams from the latter?) and told all who would listen, and many who didn’t really care, how much they were worth,” he wrote.
The All Blacks’ selection issues go further than the recent defeats.
During the latter stages of Steve Hansen’s tenure the knighted coach began trying to squeeze as many talented players in as possible rather than selecting the best team to win.
Richie Mo’unga’s emergence saw Hansen question who was the best playmaker, as he went away from the pick-and-stick method previously used when Carter and McCaw had young guns trying to dislodge them.
It led the All Blacks to move Beauden Barrett away from his preferred position in the No.10 jersey to fullback.
The midfield too was constantly changed, as the All Blacks experimented to try and find their answer to the hole left by Ma’a Nonu’s departure.
While in the back-row the All Blacks again played players out of position with Scott Barrett playing at blindside flanker instead of the second-row and Ardie Savea at No.8, with McCaw’s heir apparent Cane unmoveable at openside flanker.
Foster, who also was promoted to take over from Hansen despite many believing Crusaders coach Scott Robertson was the right person for the job, only clouded the situation further when he made Cane captain, thereby creating a David Pocock-Michael Hooper situation of their own as they disrupted the overall balance of the back-row by picking the two specialist flankers.
Kafer’s column in 2020 following the All Blacks’ draw against the Wallabies on home soil is even stronger almost two years on, as he forecast the rocky road ahead for Foster if he didn’t master the art of selection.
“Many things went wrong for the All Blacks in Wellington and it started way before kick off. In Ian Foster’s first big moment as head coach, he erred, and erred in what former Wallaby coach John Connolly describes as the head coach’s number one rule – to be a great selector,” Kafer wrote.
“When the All Blacks side was announced, I was amazed that the lessons of 2019 had all but been forgotten.”
Since then, selection has remained a huge issue for Foster with a number of pundits increasingly hitting out at his picks, including that of Cane as captain.
“There are players that are in that team that probably shouldn’t be there,” former captain Justin Marshall told SENZ radio recently.
“Now that’s a big statement I know, but I [wasn’t] utterly convinced about the players that were put in that side and that Ian Foster was trusting the All Blacks to go out there and win us a Test series against Ireland and therefore move on and win us a World Cup.”
“There are lots of equations in the mix, like what the hell is Caleb Clarke doing there if his hamstring was never going to be right for the series?,” he added.
He also slammed the acceptance that the All Blacks are allowed to lose matches.
“I’m not a bigger picture guy, I’m a right in front of you guy,” Marshall said on SENZ’s The Rugby Run.
“So right in front of me is the next Test, which for the All Blacks is South Africa in the Highveld. I’m all about winning that.
“I understand how people put major focus on Rugby World Cups, I get that because I played in two of them, but they basically didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago.
“So your main focus then as an All Black was what was right in front of you and preserving our history, and at the moment we’re not doing that.
“This current side under this regime … and it stems back to Sir Steve Hansen as well, has recreated our history to a negative. They’ve lost to Argentina for the first time in our history and they’ve lost to Ireland for the first time in our history.
“They lost to France for the first time in … I think it was 20 something years, and now they’ve lost a Test series and a game in New Zealand for the first time in 117 years.
“That’s right in front of my nose and it’s pissing me off. I understand looking toward the Rugby Championship, Mark Robinson, I understand (looking) toward the World Cup, but our history is more important than that.
“It’s what we build our mana, our foundation on in All Blacks rugby. We are about winning every test.”
Marshall believes the national side’s uninspired form will have opposing countries “licking their lips” as for the first time in decades, the All Blacks are no longer invincible.
“There are two teams that will be licking their lips right now and probably asking the All Blacks to be on their shores right now, rather than in November, and that’s Wales and Scotland,” Marshall continued.
“Wales haven’t beaten us in 69 years and Scotland never have, but they’d be hoping that All Blacks team is arriving there because all of a sudden … again, they can change the course of history for a positive one.
“Whereas we are trying to preserve what’s gone before us and at the moment it’s not happening.”
Carlos Spencer agreed, saying the Wallabies would be quietly sniffing a Bledisloe boilover.
“I think right now you would be confident (of winning back the Bledisloe Cup,” Spencer told foxsports.com.au.
“New Zealand Rugby is not in a good place at the moment.
“They’ve obviously just lost a series to Ireland and taking nothing away from Ireland, they’ve been bloody awesome. The way they’re playing at the moment, the way we’re playing, they were a step ahead of us around our attack. Our defense was passive. We’re in a bit of a pickle.”
CLOSING OF THE CAP
The All Blacks’ form woes have coincided with parts of the world waking up, including France.
Fabien Galthie’s side have been the brightest team since the 2019 World Cup and currently have the world’s best player, Antoine Dupont, running the show.
They are benefiting from a number of young talents coming through, while the core of the team are coming from sides like Toulouse.
They are also benefiting from a stronger emphasis of the pathways in the French Top 14 and not relying on overseas players to fill teams like previously.
The Leinster-dominated Irish side are also benefiting from the cohesion of playing together and the centralized program that has been put in place over the past decade.
At the same time, players from the southern hemisphere are increasingly being lured to the north for greater riches.
It has meant depth is being stretched and the best talent, players still in the prime of their careers, are no longer in their home countries and therefore being chosen.
The All Blacks currently sit fourth on the World Rugby rankings – the lowest in their history.