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Foster's All Blacks won't get let off the hook with patty-cake fixtures this year

By Hamish Bidwell
AAP Image/Dave Hunt/ www.photosport.nz

The old boys’ network have reason to be nervous.

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Sure, Super Rugby Pacific might be putting you to sleep, but fear not New Zealand footy fans.

For the first time since we started paying players over the table, in 1996, professional rugby might finally be upon us.

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Yes, a test season has arrived that could shame New Zealand Rugby (NZR) into acting like a proper outfit. No more amateur ethos, no more jobs for the boys, we stand on the precipice of seeing an All Blacks coach sacked prior to their contract expiring.

We’ve got Ireland here for a test series, two matches against the Springboks in South Africa and a home-and-away Bledisloe Cup.

There’s no Tonga to towel up. No Fiji to flog.

No, just some respectable opposition that could put NZR’s courage to the test.

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Yes, we’re dealing with might be’s and could be’s here, but let’s just crystal ball gaze for a minute.

Could the All Blacks lose to Ireland? Could they lose one or both of their Rugby Championship clashes with South Africa? Could they share the spoils in their two tests against Australia?

If nothing else, I know I’ll be watching when these matches roll around.

But imagine if Foster’s All Blacks struggle and imagine if this type of scenario does play out. What’ll happen then?

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Sackings are part and parcel of true professional sport, but anathema to how we do things here.

New Zealand coaches largely see their contracts out, particularly rugby ones.

But Foster’s has been an underwhelming tenure thus far, punctuated by losses to Australia, Argentina, Ireland and France. Selections and tactics have caused head scratching, allied to a general alarm at seeing the All Blacks’ pack dismantled on occasions.

So far NZR have stuck solid, extending Foster’s contract until 2023 despite him doing next-to-nothing to deserve that.

You assume that was to create certainty and quell any speculation that the head coach’s position could be in question.

But, seriously, what if Ireland do come here and do turn the All Blacks over and do win their first test on our soil? What then? Heaven forbid the Irish might go the whole hog and win the actual series.

I guarantee you questions about Foster’s suitability will be running rampant then.

The opposite could prove true too. The All Blacks could comfortably account for Ireland, then go to South Africa and sort out the Springboks. At that point NZR and Foster would be impregnable and some would be calling for a contract extension through to 2027.

But, on the balance of what you’ve seen under his watch so far, do you think that’s probable?

I have no personal skin in the game. The team’s results are neither here nor there to me.

What’s always intrigued me is the way NZR do their business.

Who counts among their favoured few and who doesn’t? Who within the organisation is capable of making a brave decision and who isn’t?

There’s many people beyond the hallways of NZR HQ who regard succession as a flawed system by which to appoint coaches. But, for as long as Foster can win enough games, NZR can continue to justify his appointment.

So what’s acceptable to you, in terms of wins and losses this year? And how grumpy will you get if that threshold’s not met?

It makes for a fascinating test season, with the potential to create the intensity and interest that the game sorely needs right now.

Fan apathy is worse than anger, but I think that’s where people are. They assumed NZR would pick Foster as coach and have struggled to warm to him and the team since.

Far from being irate when the team lost to Ireland and France last year, many were at the point where they weren’t actually watching anymore.

Well, I reckon they’ll be watching this year, with family and friends round, maybe a few beers on board.

It’s all very well to lose to Ireland in Dublin or Chicago, but do it on these shores and we’ll see how angry an All Blacks’ fanbase can get.

NZ Rugby might find it hard to complacently maintain the status quo then.

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