Will arduous All Blacks schedule hamper Razor’s rebuild?
His record there was incredible – seven campaigns and seven titles. But his real triumph was the culture he fostered, the spirit he engendered and the style of rugby the Crusaders played.
They were lovable and entertaining winners – playing a free-flowing but abrasive style of rugby that enabled them to adapt their game to Super Rugby’s vastly different climactic conditions and (certainly between 2017 and 2020) variety of opponents.
Robertson, known as Razor, is viewed as a coaching Svengali – an alternative thinker who used pictures and themes to communicate and inspire his players, and there is no doubt that the public mood is behind him now that he’s in the All Blacks role.
But this conviction within New Zealand that the All Blacks stand on the cusp of a bold new era, where they unearth young, charismatic superstars and play and interact with a freedom their predecessors didn’t, is going to be challenged by the enormity of the schedule the national team is likely to face in 2024.
If everything goes to plan, the All Blacks will play 15 tests next year – a schedule that will also see them circumnavigate the globe twice. No one should doubt how tough it will be to play 15 tests in 21 weeks – games that will be played in 10 different countries and across five continents.
The All Blacks have twice previously played 15 tests in a calendar year, with mixed results. In 2008 they did it – plus an additional game against Munster in Limerick – and it tested them to the limit.
The coaching teams of 2008 and 2021 both say that 15 tests were too many and that it left them having to make selection decisions designed to manage workloads and fatigue, rather than always pick the players they wanted
That year they won 13 of the 15, while in 2021 they also played 15, primarily because they had only managed six fixtures because of Covid the year before and were eager to give an emerging group of players more test exposure.
The All Blacks won 12 of their first 13 tests in 2021 and then lost the last two against Ireland and France to finish with a 75 per cent win ratio. Given that they spent 15 of those weeks in a secure bio-bubble and three months away from home, it wasn’t a bad effort.
But the coaching teams of 2008 and 2021 both say that 15 tests were too many and that it left them having to make selection decisions that were designed to manage workloads and fatigue, rather than always pick the players they wanted.
What is going to make 2024 such a hard year is not just the volume of games played in a more condensed period, and the associated travel, but also the quality of the opposition.
In 2021, the All Blacks had plenty of soft games, starting the season as they did with home tests against Fiji, Tonga and Australia, with fixtures against USA, Italy and relatively weak Argentina and Welsh outfits. Robertson, on the other hand, will begin his tenure with two home tests against England in July, with a third in New Zealand against Fiji.
There is a desire for a second game to be played against Fiji in Fiji seven days later, to turn that into a two-test series. The heat and humidity in Fiji at that time of year will be hugely challenging.
If all this happens, New Zealand will be playing tests against the teams currently ranked one, two, four and five in the world and that begs the question of how many tests Robertson must win to deliver on expectation
The All Blacks will play the world champion Springboks twice in South Africa, while they are also considering taking one of their home Rugby Championship tests against the Pumas to Los Angeles, Miami or some other city in the United States.
It will be hot in the US and then the All Blacks will have to return to the depths of the New Zealand winter to play back-to-back Bledisloe Cup tests against the Wallabies – one in Australia and one in New Zealand – before finishing the season with a test in Japan, one in London, one in France, one in Ireland and one still to be determined.
If all this happens, New Zealand will be playing tests against the teams currently ranked one, two, four and five in the world and that begs the question of how many tests Robertson must win to deliver on expectation.
When the All Blacks won 12 in 2021, it was considered a poor year. There were effectively four tough games in that schedule and the All Blacks only won one of them, when they beat South Africa in the Rugby Championship.
So, really, Robertson has to be targeting 13 wins to meet expectation. With two tests in South Africa, as well as away games against England, France and Ireland, it’s going to take a huge effort to win that many.
But what might end up marking Robertson’s tenure as different to that of his predecessors is that playing 15 tests in a season may become the norm.
These brutal schedules are probably going to become a necessity for the All Blacks as New Zealand Rugby comes under increasing pressure to make the sort of financial returns its equity partner, Silver Lake, needs to justify its investment in the team.
Moffett was right that the All Blacks will be squeezed that little bit harder by the new investors, whose theory is that there are millions of offshore All Blacks fans waiting to be monetised
This was always one of the dangers of NZR getting into bed with a fund manager – that the All Blacks would be seen as a cash cow to be milked, with one of the easiest ways to do that by asking them to play more tests.
This was a point former NZR chief executive David Moffett made back in 2021 when a deal became a possibility. “If [Silver Lake] don’t get the return they expect, they may very well say we want a bigger percentage and a bigger say.
“If they don’t get the return that has been worked out, because spreadsheets are one thing but delivery is another, then they will be looking at ways at which they can and… the first place they will look at is how many times can we get the All Blacks to play and where can we get them to play.
“Will it be exhibition matches in the United States for example? But whether it’s now or in the future, you will see the All Blacks playing more games and perhaps more meaningless games and that just devalues the greatest brand in rugby.”
Moffett wasn’t right about the nature of the additional games, but he was right that the All Blacks will be squeezed that little bit harder by the new investors, whose theory is that there are millions of offshore All Blacks fans waiting to be monetised.
This is why earlier this year NZR announced that the All Blacks will play a test in Japan in each of the next four years. It is also why they are considering playing a Rugby Championship test in the USA – to showcase the brand to potential new fans.
And the reason they will be playing at Twickenham next year is because they will be asking for an estimated cash payment to be there, as the game falls outside the designated test window.
The drivers to play these games are going to be as strong next year as they are this year and the probability is high that the All Blacks will play in Japan and the USA every year, and they will also, additionally, look to play at least one fixture in Europe outside the designated window so they can agree a lucrative financial payment.
The All Blacks may also look to play Fiji at least every other year. This is because the Fijians are likely to be invited into the League of Nations in 2026 and they need to be ready to compete. New Zealand will be doing its bit to help, and to provide broadcasters with the confidence that they will be spending their cash on something top-notch.
The fascinating thing is that NZR are scheduling these impossibly difficult seasons, and yet they installed Robertson to produce a higher win ratio than the 70 per cent achieved by his predecessor Ian Foster.