When next year’s Rugby World Cup comes to a conclusion, so too will Steve Hansen’s current contract as All Blacks head coach.
Hansen has been involved in the All Blacks coaching group since he returned to the country from a stint in Wales in 2004. When Graham Henry’s role as head coach came to an end upon securing New Zealand’s second World Cup in 2011, Hansen stepped into the head coach role. What’s followed has been one of the most successful coaching stretches of all time – in any sport.
Under Hansen’s almost century of test matches as head coach, the All Blacks have won just short of 90% of their matches. The only previous All Blacks coaches who have bested that win rate were only in the role for 14 matches at the most – and that was way back in the sixties.
Speculation has been rife concerning who will take over from Hansen in 2020. Joe Schmidt, one of the early favourites for the role, has announced that he will step down from all forms of coaching after taking Ireland to the World Cup next year (though many hope that this is only a temporary spell from the game). Warren Gatland, who has just as many detractors as supporters, will also finish up with Wales after 2019’s showpiece tournament and will likely put his name in the hat. Other potential coaches, such as Dave Rennie and Vern Cotter, might need to spend a bit of time negotiating their way out of their current contracts with their European clubs but could also come into the picture.
If recent practice is anything to go by, however, then the next New Zealand coach is likely already in the country – and probably already in the All Blacks coaching set up.
Providing that Hansen himself doesn’t reapply for the role (he was originally contracted to finish with the team after last year’s British and Irish Lions tour but re-contracted until the end of 2019), then it’s fair to say that the man with the greatest chance of securing the job is his current second in command, Ian Foster.
When Henry completed his term with the All Blacks at the end of 2011, the NZRU accepted applications from around the world. It’s widely understood that both Cotter and Schmidt applied for the role then (perhaps as head and assistant), but it was Hansen who came out on top.
Hansen’s coaching resume, prior to joining the All Blacks, wasn’t exactly glittering with achievements. The ex-midfielder had secured a couple of NPC titles as head coach of Canterbury around the turn of the century and then worked with Robbie Deans at the Crusaders – during a period when the Crusaders won two titles but also fell to their worst finish since the inaugural Super Rugby competition. In the following years, Hansen took over from Henry at Wales where results were, to put it mildly, mediocre.
Regardless of results, Hansen was viewed as a promising coach and brought into the All Blacks mix. It was no doubt his eight years as Henry’s second in command that eventually earned him the head coach role – a role he has excelled in since. Maintaining continuity from the successful Henry era to the next was likely one of the things that Hansen pushed hard in his application with the NZRU and certainly played a big part in helping him get the job. Ultimately, it’s for this reason that we will likely see one of the current All Blacks assistant coaches take over from Hansen in 2020.
Gatland has had a successful tenure as coach of both Wales and the British and Irish Lions, but he has had little to do with New Zealand rugby since he left the country ten years ago. Rennie, in a similar vein, is possibly the most talented Super Rugby coach New Zealand has seen in a number of years but, while his experience overseas will be invaluable, it is likely that he won’t be considered as a serious contender for the All Blacks coaching berth until he steps into a more junior role in the set up.
Closer to home, Scott Robertson has successfully returned the Crusaders to their former glory as the top team in Super Rugby. He’s an affable character who will certainly have many supporters around New Zealand (especially in the Canterbury region), but he’s still a relative newbie compared to some of the other challengers, having only been a professional head coach for five years. It’s also worth remembering that another very talented Crusaders coach was overlooked for the All Blacks head coaching position back in 2008 in favour of maintaining continuity.
All signs point to a current coach in the All Blacks set up taking over from Hansen come 2020, and the man best placed to step into the role is Foster. Like Hansen before him, Foster’s coaching achievements prior to joining the All Blacks are nothing to write home about.
Foster was in charge of the Chiefs for eight years, from 2004 until 2011, and in that time they made the finals only twice (and were on the receiving end of the worst ever loss suffered in a Super Rugby final). It’s worth noting, however, that Foster’s record with the Chiefs is not quite as poor as many people make out.
A coach has two primary roles – recruiting the right men and getting the best possible results out of them. In recent iterations of Super Rugby, recruiting has changed considerably from how it operated prior to 2010. Now, in New Zealand at least, players can be contracted to any Super Rugby squad, regardless of which province they represent in the domestic competition. This has significantly altered the resources available to Super Rugby coaches and has placed a huge emphasis on bringing in the right players to a squad. Recruitment becomes a much more complex task – but it also means that squads are stronger across the board. Whilst the Highlanders and the Chiefs used to have to rely on primarily local talent, they can now bring in players from across the country. Unsurprisingly, both teams have seen improved performances and between them have won a third of the Super Rugby titles on offer since 2010.
When Foster was in charge of the Chiefs, he had a solid team – the first XV was close to rivalling the best in the competition. A solid team (injury permitting), however, is still going to struggle with the line-ups that the Crusaders and Hurricanes were able to throw out every week. The Chiefs’ only regular All Blacks during the Foster era were Byron Kelleher, Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu. Compare that to the likes of the Huricanes who could trot out Jerry Collins, Andrew Hore, Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith Rodney So’oialo, Neemia Tialata and Piri Weepu. Obviously, developing players is also a core role of a coach but, to put it bluntly, the Chiefs simply didn’t have the raw resources to regularly compete with the best teams in the competition.
Come the end of many a Super Rugby season, the Chiefs were also playing some of the best rugby of any of the teams. 2006 and 2007, in particular, finished on very high notes, but the Chiefs were hampered by their early season form. In fact, the biggest criticism you could make of Foster during his time as head coach was that he was never able to get the Chiefs engine ticking along until a few weeks into the competition.
Foster may not necessarily be the best coach running around, but when it come to assessing the best man for the All Blacks coaching role there are certain aspects of the contenders that need to be emphasised over others. It can’t be overstated how important the seamless transition between Henry and Hansen has been for the All Blacks’ success over the last eight years.
Foster knows the players already in the All Blacks set up – and he’s certainly done considerable research over the players nearing selection. To bring in a completely new coach with completely new ideas and systems wastes any of the knowledge that Foster and his other assistants have accrued over the years. It makes considerably more sense to promote Foster to the top dog role and bring in one of the other contenders as an apprentice. Someone like Rennie, who is incredible at identifying promising talent, would perfectly supplement the skills that Foster has.
With an announcement of the NZRU’s intentions for 2020 and onwards possibly just around the corner, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Ian Foster will take over as head coach of the All Blacks once Hansen abdicates the role. This is even more probable if Hansen steps into a newly created job as director of New Zealand rugby, as is rumoured. The bigger question that should be considered if who will be added to the coaching roster – because they will likely have the best chance of being the next All Blacks coach once Foster completes his time.
All Black coaching contenders:
Ian Foster – continues to serve as assistant coach under the successful Hansen regime
Joe Schmidt – current coach of Ireland, retiring from coaching for the immediate future and unlikely to throw his hat in the ring
Warren Gatland – current coach of Wales, will likely be pursuing another international coaching gig after his contract ends next year (already England has been rumoured)
Vern Cotter – coaching Montpellier at present after spending a number of years at the helm of Scotland, has suggested that a return home could be on the cards after finishing up in France
Dave Rennie – likely to remain contracted to Glasgow until the end of 2019, could fancy a shot at the top job but an assistant role should be his if he wants it
Jamie Joseph – contracted with Japan until the World Cup concludes next year, Joseph had a successful stint with the Highlanders (though it’s hard to forget how poorly the star-studded team performed in 2013)
Scott McLeod – brought in to the All Blacks coaching set up as a replacement for Wayne Smith in 2017, he may value more time in the assistant’s role
Scott Robertson – the youngest coach who may consider applying for the job, Robertson would make a great assistant
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