As contenders for the All Blacks head coaching job dwindle by the day, attention will soon turn to not just those who remain, but their scramble to assemble compelling running teams.
Over the next three weeks, Ian Foster and Scott Robertson are expected to engage in a head-to-head battle to replace Steve Hansen.
Before embarking on their respective interviews, the behind-the-scenes chess game of pulling together coaching teams is well underway.
New Zealand Rugby made it clear the decision to appoint the next All Blacks head coach will be swayed by the collection of assistant coaches as much as it will the new lead man.
With Jamie Joseph, Tony Brown, Dave Rennie and Warren Gatland all now committed elsewhere, this is where permutations get interesting.
Hurricanes coach John Plumtree is believed to have emerged as one key target.
From Wales to Ireland, South Africa, Japan and Wellington, Plumtree is a vastly experienced mentor who has enjoyed success in both head coaching and assistant capacities.
Alongside Chris Boyd, he led the Hurricanes to their maiden title in 2016 as defence coach. Under Plumtree’s guidance, that season the Hurricanes did not concede a try in three successive playoff matches.
The 54-year-old former Taranaki loose forward/lock is a tough taskmaster who also held the forwards coaching brief previously – notably under Joe Schmidt with Ireland from 2013-14.
Sources have indicated to the Herald that Foster may try uniting Plumtree and Schmidt to join Scott McLeod on his ticket.
While Ireland failed to progress beyond the quarterfinals of two World Cups under Schmidt, they did rise to be recognised as the world’s best team last year and the Kiwi mentor remains widely respected for his tactical knowledge of the game.
Despite his next move being the subject of constant speculation, Schmidt is notoriously guarded with his intentions.
At this point he has only said he intends to remain in Ireland to take a break from the game until June – a timeframe that would, potentially, leave him free to join the All Blacks coaching ranks for their next test series in July.
Nothing is set in stone, and cards remain close to chests, but the fact Plumtree and Schmidt have worked together previously would give symmetry to Foster’s potential coaching team.
Wallabies great Michael Lynagh has a simple message for Australian rugby fans…https://t.co/f6zIHJxeOm
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 22, 2019
Former All Blacks prop Greg Feek, who worked as Ireland scrum coach for five years, is another potential recruit.
Details about Robertson’s team are, at this stage, more difficult to ascertain. He is expected to bring Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan through, and is believed to have approached Blues coach Leon MacDonald about joining him.
MacDonald played a leading role in Robertson’s coaching team during his first Super Rugby season as the Crusaders broke their nine-year title drought.
MacDonald then moved back to Tasman, but recently appeared to rule himself out of contention by stating publicly his focus is solely on the Blues.
If Robertson, Plumtree or MacDonald were to join the All Blacks, the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Blues face the prospect of being told mid-December their coach won’t be returning post-Christmas.
That’s far from ideal six weeks out from the start of their season but another byproduct of the process to replace Hansen playing out at this time.
Former Blues coach Pat Lam has, meanwhile, revealed he knocked back the opportunity to apply for the All Blacks job.
Lam, along with 26 other candidates, received an invitation from NZR head of high performance Mike Anthony on October 29 – three days after the All Blacks semifinal loss to England – outlining the process to apply.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 22, 2019
Having signed a four-year contract extension as Bristol director of rugby in May through to 2023, Lam opted not to contest the role.
“I received a letter inviting me to apply for the role but I pretty much replied straight away and respectfully declined because I’m in a dream job,” Lam said.
“I’m very happy with what I’m doing here. I couldn’t be in a better place at the moment as I continue to grow as a coach.
“There’s obviously clear candidates. Fozzie is there as front-runner and my good mate Razor has done a fantastic job.
“There’s a lot of good New Zealand coaches everywhere. The process doesn’t look too different to ones I knew about when I was down there. You can’t complain about that and at the end of the day they’ll get the right man for the job.”
The All Blacks may still be holding try-outs, but the Wallabies have locked in their man for the next World Cup:
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