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Robertson's shadow looms over Foster after getting bullied by Fiji

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Unfortunately it’s not just Grant Fox looming over Ian Foster’s shoulder.


Seriously, if there was anything to take from the All Blacks’ first test of the season, it was how hard it must be for the coaches to do their job with Fox hovering behind them.

Never mind that the All Blacks were winning by one hundred points, national-selector Fox looked like he could combust at any moment.

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Ian Foster praises physical Fijian challenge
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Ian Foster praises physical Fijian challenge

A week on, it’s not Fox casting the biggest shadow over Foster, but the re-signed Scott Robertson.

It would take a brave person to suggest New Zealand is bereft of rugby talent. You’ll get the odd British pundit who seeks to generate clicks by saying the All Blacks are soft or over-rated, but no sane person takes that stuff too seriously.

In saying that, Foster’s All Blacks have been unconvincing and inconsistent.

People can prattle on all they like about Covid-19 and the challenges it created for Foster and the All Blacks’ coaching staff, but losing to Australia and Argentina last year was unforgivable.


Yes, the team retained the Bledisloe Cup and sure they were crowned Tri-Nations champions, but so they should have. Those achievements are the bare minimum fans should expect from the side, rather than the endorsement of Foster that some have painted them as.

Steve Hansen, Foster’s predecessor and friend, was the latest to say so, going on to claim it was “stupid’’ that New Zealand Rugby (NZR) hadn’t already appointed Foster through until the end of this Rugby World Cup cycle.

Well, with the greatest respect, NZR would be daft to do so, with Saturday’s underwhelming 57-23 win over Fiji being the most recent example why.

For those of us desperate for a contest, after the appalling spectacle of the previous week’s 102-0 defeat of Tonga, it was heartening to see Fiji’s forwards shunt the All Blacks around. For Foster and his staff, though, that should’ve been frightening.


Fiji are many things, but being renowned for their driving and mauling has rarely been one of them.

You assume their forwards won’t be so formidable when the teams meet again this weekend and that the All Blacks will win by plenty. Heaven help Foster if they don’t, because NZR have just sewn up the obvious head-coaching alternative.

There’s little point debating whether favouring continuity over sustained excellence was the right call for Hansen’s succession. The fact is they hired Foster to be head coach – on the strength of his stint as Hansen’s understudy – instead of rewarding Robertson for his incredible title-winning success at all levels of the game.

Hansen argued over recent days that the All Blacks need certainty. That they need to know Foster will coach them at the 2023 world cup and that the team will immediately play outstanding rugby as a result.

Well, it’s actually only Foster that needs that certainty and – thankfully – NZR have recognised that he’s done nothing to deserve it just yet.

With every match these All Blacks play, Robertson looks better equipped for the job. The more the All Blacks look rattled or ill-prepared for what the opposition confront them with, the more people question Foster’s suitability.

I’ve written here before that the All Blacks ought to go through 2021 unbeaten. There are some reasonable teams on their schedule, but none who are demonstrably better.

But then these are the same blokes who got beaten by the Wallabies and Pumas a few months ago and were then pushed around by Fiji at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Given a repeat of those kinds of performances, Robertson won’t be forced into triggering the exit-clause in his new NZR contract.

It’s very easy to have a go at NZR. I mean, in absolute fairness to them, they don’t even make it hard. Time and again the national body do things that defy logic, but not in this instance.

The re-signing of Roberston, though to the end of 2024, was encouragingly strategic.

No-one wants the All Blacks to continue to underwhelm and no-one wants to see them lose two or three times this season. But, in case they do and in case the decision is taken not to extend Foster’s contract when it expires this year, a credible alternative is ready, willing and very able.

It’s easy to underestimate Robertson or to be distracted by his eccentricities. But the bottom line is his teams win – and win well – and that’s never been something you’d say about a Foster-coached side.

The more mediocre teams such as Fiji bully or even embarrass the All Blacks, the more Robertson’s shadow looms over this coaching staff.


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