To win a World Cup, teams have to win at least three big games in a row, but the All Blacks nearly fell twice against a side nobody was really expecting to win a game ahead of the Bledisloe Cup series. So now just four games into his time in charge of the All Blacks, it’s become clear that Ian Foster is nothing more than a semi-final coach.
Except for Bledisloe III, Foster has struggled to get it right with a talented group of players, despite coming up against a largely inexperienced Wallabies squad.
In his first game in-charge, the Wallabies were inches away from claiming an unlikely win in Wellington, which led former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry to admit that “New Zealand Rugby c**ked that up” by appointing Foster.
In that match, the All Blacks lacked creativity, and especially when the going got tough late in the contest, a backup plan.
Since, they started to look like the All Blacks of old in matches two and three on either side of the Tasman, but their response in Brisbane was awful.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 8, 2020
Foster rolled the dice with his selections ahead of the final Bledisloe of the year, which saw only Anton Lienert-Brown hold his place in the backline from the week before, and four debutants selected in the matchday squad.
“I’ve got to take some of this on the chin, because I put some new combinations out on the park,” Foster said following the 24-22 loss.
“But we just felt that this tour was about giving people opportunities, and so I’ve got no regrets.”
I’ve got no problem with teams trying to develop new talent, but the decision to name them alongside an All Blacks side which was largely an experiment in itself lacked composure.
In Foster’s defence, there have been some left-field selections which have worked wonders for him since taking over, none more so than picking Jordie Barrett on the right-wing for the first three tests. Barrett scored three tries in three games, and at that stage, had run the equal most metres of any player in the series.
If the All Blacks had overcome their Brisbane hoodoo and defeated the Wallabies though, Foster’s decision to name new players would’ve been hailed as a masterstroke by yours truly, but fine margins both on and off the field determine test matches and in a few years, will decide World Cups.
Also, cast your mind back to July when it was revealed that NZME have anonymously polled over 100 New Zealand Super Rugby players about if the NZRU had got its coaching selections right.
46% said no.
Instead, the other option for the All Blacks was Scott Robertson, who himself donned the black jersey during his playing days. ‘Razor’ is a winner, and that follows him everywhere he goes.
Robertson has won four straight Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders including the Aotearoa title this year. Add Mitre 10 Cup titles and a World Rugby Under 20 Championship in 2015, and his resume certainly speaks volumes about what he could accomplish on the international stage.
In comparison, there are players potentially playing for the All Blacks now who either didn’t or still don’t have faith in Foster. This could be a significant factor down the road.
The Wallabies have claimed a famous victory over the All Blacks, overturning three winless encounters against their Tasman neighbours to snatch a 24-22 win at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. #AUSvNZL #BledisloeCup https://t.co/2DF10nyJCg
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 7, 2020
It’s a phrase that’s largely been popularised by European Football but ‘having the backing of the dressing room’ is huge for a coach, and can decide big games.
Clips from the documentary series Chasing the Sun have surfed online, showing 2019 Springboks winning coach Rassie Erasmus motivating his players before pivotal games at last year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Inspired, the Springboks then went on to win the World Cup, despite losing to the All Blacks 57-0 just two years earlier.
This approach to coaching might not have been what the All Blacks needed in the past, but when the pressure on the All Blacks grows as they face teams like England and South Africa, coaching can be the difference.
Looking at Foster’s track record too, his teams don’t fare well in big moments.
In his first-year coaching in the NPC in New Zealand, Foster took Waikato to the final, after they finished top at the end of the round-robin. But they fell at the final hurdle, losing 40-28 to Auckland in the big dance.
When he took over at the Chiefs, again, semi-final’s were the best he could do until the 2009 Super 14 final. At Loftus Versfeld Stadium, his side were blown out by 44-points against the Bulls.
While it certainly hasn’t been an ideal start to his time as head coach for the All Blacks, Foster’s decision making and ability to lift his players in key games definitely suggests what many have been arguing for months: that’s he’s not the right man for the job.
He was always going to be the safe option for the All Blacks, but cracks are beginning to appear. It might just be one loss and one draw, but considering the experience of their opponent; his history of falling short when it counts appears to be repeating somewhat.
Foster struggles to get his team across the line in test matches, and let’s face it: the Wallabies in Brisbane is nothing compared to South Africa at Ellis Park, England at Twickenham, or anyone in a World Cup Final.
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