As is the case with any World Cup campaign, the All Blacks’ 2019 bid for global domination has plenty riding on it.
This year’s tournament presents an unprecedented opportunity to round out the reigning world champions’ World Cup monopoly after title successes at the last two events in 2011 and 2015.
Furthermore, the next seven weeks in Japan will act as head coach Steve Hansen’s, captain Kieran Read’s and veterans Sonny Bill Williams’, Ryan Crotty’s, Matt Todd’s and Ben Smith’s swansongs from the New Zealand national side.
It will presumably be an emotional time in the Far East for each one of those individuals given the amount they have contributed to the black jersey.
It makes sense, then, that succession plans have been put in place an attempt to alleviate each of those losses throughout the next World Cup cycle.
Already considered extremely unlucky to have missed out on the original World Cup squad, Ngani Laumape is primed to take over Williams’ second-five role next year – provided that the latter doesn’t succumb to injury before the end of the tournament, as has been incorrectly rumoured.
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Similarly, Jordie Barrett looks set to take over from Smith as New Zealand’s star fullback, unless, of course, the Richie Mo’unga-Beauden Barrett playmaking axis retains its place in the starting lineup next year.
No out-and-out No. 8 has been found to fill Read’s boots just yet, although Ardie Savea doesn’t look out of place at the back of a scrum, and there is still a lot of room for growth and development with Akira Ioane.
In terms of captaincy, Sam Whitelock is in pole position to become the next permanent All Blacks skipper following a brief stint in Japanese club rugby at the beginning of 2020.
The void left by Crotty should be filled adequately by the up-and-coming Braydon Ennor at both Super Rugby and international level, while young flankers Luke Jacobson and Dalton Papalii can squabble over the back-up openside flanker role Todd has held behind Savea and Sam Cane.
That leaves the head coach position, and that’s where the succession plan becomes murkier.
In short, the next All Blacks head coach is probably going to be either current assistant coach Ian Foster or Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson.
Numerous other names were thrown into the mix when it was announced that Hansen would step down following this World Cup, but with Ireland’s Joe Schmidt – the only other genuine candidate listed as a favourite for the job – out of the picture as he puts family matters ahead of his professional career, it remains a two-horse race between Foster and Robertson.
For as long as he acted as Hansen’s assistant, Foster was always going to be a frontrunner for the gig.
As New Zealand Rugby has illustrated over the past few World Cup cycles, there is a preference for retaining those who have been in the All Blacks system before and understand the systems in place that harvests success.
It’s a philosophy which only came about following the 2007 World Cup, when the All Blacks were famously upset 20-18 by France in Cardiff.
The defeat sent the World Cup favourites packing at the quarter-final stage, the earliest the then-one-time champions had ever left the tournament.
Naturally, calls for Graham Henry’s head as the coach of the side came thick and fast as the New Zealand public pointed anywhere and everywhere in search of someone or something to lay the blame for the embarrassing loss on.
Referee Wayne Barnes, who missed a Freddie Michalak forward pass in the lead-up to Yannick Jauzion’s match-winning try with just over 10 minutes to play, copped a lot of the ensuing flack, but the All Blacks had themselves to blame after falling behind on the scoreboard late in the fixture.
New Zealand’s lack of a back-up plan in case of emergency was glaringly obvious as the game wore on.
Luke McAlister’s half-field drop goal attempt inside the final minute of the match, which landed woefully short of the posts, was symbolic of how panicked and ill-prepared the Kiwis were for such a scenario.
As head coach of the side, Henry had to be held accountable for that, along with the array of questionable selections throughout the starting side for that clash.
Up until that point, no All Blacks coach had ever survived World Cup failure, as John Hart (twice, in 1991 as co-coach and then again eight years later), Alex Wyllie, Laurie Mains and John Mitchell had all been chopped following semi-final and grand final defeats at the quadrennial event since 1991.
It seemed inevitable that Henry and his assistants Hansen and Wayne Smith would follow suit, especially with Crusaders head coach Robbie Deans lurking in the wings, waiting to take the charge of the national side after leading the Crusaders to four spectacular Super Rugby titles in eight years.
However, the New Zealand Rugby Union – as it was known then – bucked the trend of sacking their unsuccessful coaches and re-committed to Henry, Hansen and Smith.
The move allowed the trio, along with then-captain Richie McCaw, to re-evaluate and learn from the mistakes they had made in the lead-up to 2007, an opportunity none of Henry’s predecessors were afforded.
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Subsequently, the 73-year-old led the All Blacks to their first world title in 24 years, earning redemption over France with an 8-7 grand final win on home soil in 2011.
Had the appointment of Deans, who went on to instead coach the Wallabies, come to fruition and the All Blacks’ backroom staff been overhauled, it’s difficult to imagine that the side would have gone on to achieve such success without having the individuals who had endured such a dramatic failure at the helm of the squad.
The key to the All Blacks’ eventual World Cup glory was the retention of core members from the ill-fated 2007 campaign.
After that method of granting those who had failed a chance to right their wrongs had been proven to work in the form of a World Cup crown four years later, it was imperative for the NZRU to prolong that success.
To do that, continual retention was needed from key members within the All Blacks’ coaching ranks, and so when Henry stepped down from the role in November 2011, it wasn’t surprising that Hansen was named as his successor.
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The wealth of knowledge and experience he had accumulated alongside Henry throughout the 2007 and 2011 World Cup cycles was pivotal in the All Blacks’ all-conquering 2015 World Cup run.
The team that donned the black jersey between 2012 and 2015 was undoubtedly the best international side rugby has ever seen, so when they clinched back-to-back World Cup titles four years ago, re-securing the services of Hansen was vital as they prepared their bid to claim the Webb Ellis Cup for a third successive time.
It remains to be seen if the All Blacks will win an unparalleled hat-trick of world titles in Japan, but history suggests that the contributions of those within the national set-up of a world champion side will be integral to future World Cup success.
Keeping Henry, Hansen and Smith all onboard post-2007 let the All Blacks figure out their recipe for global domination at the next two World Cups, and they head into this one as favourites to win it again.
Should they do so, the acquisition of Foster as head coach until France 2023 would seem to be the most likely option as the race to become Hansen’s replacement heats up.
As the All Blacks assistant coach since 2012, Foster has garnered eight years of experience under the tutelage of Hansen, so he knows how to win.
That was before he joined Hansen and the All Blacks, though, and if he can help attain another World Cup winners’ medal to accompany the one he won in 2015, NZR will be knocking on his door with a fresh four-year head coach contract ready to be inked.
Failure to do so, however, could open the door right up for Robertson.
Unlike Foster, Robertson’s win record since entering the world of professional coaching is exemplary.
Five straight domestic titles as assistant coach of Canterbury between 2008 and 2012, a further three as head coach between 2013 and 2016, an U20 World Championship crown four years ago and three consecutive Super Rugby banners with the Crusaders since 2017 makes Robertson one of the most decorated coaches of those who have only been in the industry for a little over a decade.
In his 11 years as a first-class coach, he has only endured one trophy-less season (2014) across all three sides that he has overseen.
That speaks volumes of his coaching ability, and if the All Blacks head coach position is to go to someone from outside of the current set-up should they flounder over the next seven weeks, there are few as well-equipped as Robertson to take over the reins.
The appointment of new NZR chief executive Mark Robinson could also yield a fresh approach to the selection of the next All Blacks coach compared to that of outgoing CEO Steve Tew, who was in power for all three of the 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cup campaigns.
If that’s the case, Robinson’s arrival at the NZR offices in Wellington could be good news for Robertson, whose integration of fun in the normally mundane aspects of coaching has worked wonders for the previously-struggling Crusaders.
So, while the pressures of attaining a third straight World Cup title and maintaining New Zealand’s dominance as the planet’s premier rugby nation will be strongly felt by the playing group, the ramifications of however the All Blacks perform will extend well beyond the 31-man squad.
Victory will almost certainly assure Foster his position as the next man in charge of the national side, but, as it did in 2007, defeat could force a re-think of how the All Blacks operate.
It proved to be the right decision, but Deans’ failed application to coach the side of which he played five tests for was exceptionally unfortunate given his undeniable success with the Crusaders.
It’s hard to envisage Robertson suffering the same fate should the All Blacks come up luckless this time round.
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