Wednesday this week would have been a curious day for Ian Foster. Mid-morning he learned he had landed his dream job as head coach of the All Blacks, and by the time he went to bed, the life must have been half sucked out of him after his appointment was met with an endless barrage of negativity and adverse commentary.
Whatever excitement there was in the Foster household on Wednesday morning, wasn’t shared outside of it and having signed a two-year contract, the new All Blacks coach finds himself in the position of having to win approval from a cynical public who were mostly rooting for the other guy to get the job.
Foster, then, is the coach the country didn’t want. He is not the people’s choice – that was the rejected Scott Robertson and an incredibly tough job is going to be so much harder for Foster on account of not, at this stage, having the full weight of the nation behind him.
But no one could accuse Foster of starting his tenure in a state of delusion as he understands that his popularity is not sky-high.
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“It is tough when you have been in an environment as an assistant for eight years for people to get a real sense of how you are coaching,” he says.
“I understand that. Steve [Hansen] had his own style and did a magnificent job of it. He had his own flavour.
“I know opinion has been divided and I know in Scott there has been another great candidate that people have got behind. I love that. It is the passion of the game and it is great that the union had a tough choice but they have decided on me.
“I am not going to turn everyone’s opinion straight away. I have got to get in there and roll my sleeves up and I want to reassure people that I am here because I love this team and that I feel really good about the plan.
“I know what I know about the team but I also know that the team has to change.”
Nor could anyone accuse Foster of having fanciful or flimsy notions about what he must do to bring the sceptics into his camp.
He gets that he will be judged by results, but he does also hope that in his new role, he’ll be able to give a better impression of what he is all about and win a little warmth as well as respect.
It is the curse of the assistant coach that they are forever having to hide parts of themselves. They are reading from someone else’s script: toeing someone else’s line and it is not possible to get a true read on who they really are.
Hansen proved that when he was a surly and at times prickly assistant who often alienated the media, but a humorous and engaging head coach who ended his career with a spontaneous standing ovation from fans in Tokyo.
“You can duck for cover as an assistant coach and Steve cast a pretty big shadow in that space,” says Foster.
“There were times when it was quite hard to come out from under that shadow and perhaps for people to see me for who I was. But that’s okay because my job was to do the best thing for the team.
“I know there is an incredible amount of pressure. But there is an amazing feel in that group and it is a privilege to be part of.
“You hear that word a lot but I don’t take it for granted. I had no expectation I was going to get the job. I just felt like a player and put my best foot forward, perform as best you can and then see what happens.”
What happened was he got the job. He may not have the support of the people – or certainly not all of them – but he was unanimously endorsed by the New Zealand Rugby board who were taken with with his vision which is essentially a plan to keep the best of the previous regime, while making changes that Foster says range from tweaks to overhauls.
That combination was too much for the appointment panel to resist as they felt it gave them continuity, which appealed to their mostly conservative selves while acknowledging that the All Blacks have stayed ahead of everyone else by constantly innovating.
The detail around the specifics will emerge in the course of 2020 but Foster is conscious that having been an integral part of the All Blacks for eight years under Hansen, he doesn’t want to stomp in next year and rip everything up as if he never agreed with it.
“I haven’t come in on a platform that I am going to change everything,” he says. “I have an in-depth knowledge of what goes on in the team as I have been part of it. And I am accountable and responsible for the good stuff and bad stuff.
“If my plan was to copy and paste the formula then I shouldn’t be the next All Blacks coach. So I have gone in on and said ‘what is the core stuff that I think we are particularly strong at? What do I think is essential that we maintain? What is the stuff we have to tweak and what is the stuff we have to radically change?’
“And there are things in that radically change category that I am excited about. There are some great people involved and there is a high degree of pain.
“We are hurting and we have got to use that to fuel some change: change behaviours and change some systems. We have got to evolve some areas of our game.
“And so yep I know the pressure, but you have a clear direction and I have got to be myself. I believe in what I am doing. There are some new voices in there and we have to find a new way of doing things.”
Foster is amped by the prospect of driving change and taking charge of the All Blacks at a time when their standing in the global game has slipped from the heights it reached in 2016.
But it’s the fact that the All Blacks are facing numerous challenges that has left him short of support. The All Blacks are minus a World Cup trophy and their number one ranking.
They also need to find a new captain and replacements for a handful of experienced veterans and for the first time in 10 years there is a genuine re-building job to be done.
And not many are sure he is the man to do it because, like he says, it’s hard to tell the influence and ability of an assistant coach, while his previous experience as a head coach at the Chiefs was not a resounding success.
But despite the odds appearing to be stacked against him, his confidence is that he can change the trajectory of the national team in the next two years is undented.
“If you look at our World Cup squad yes we have lost a few players but we actually have a higher percentage of younger players that are still there. If you go through and look at the age of a lot of our backs it is a young backline and I think the best is still to come for a lot of those players.
“So instead of being fuelled by a successful tournament and us talking about how to stop a team becoming complacent, we are now being fuelled by a disappointing result and I think we are going to have some very hungry players coming back.
“So I think between that and maybe an injection of some new players which there are always going to be, then it is an exciting time. We have got to make sure that we have an environment that harnesses that so people can play with skill and physicality and a smile on their face.”
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