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RUGBYPASS+ Ian Foster's reappointment shows nothing compares to a World Cup

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Ian Foster's reappointment shows nothing compares to a World Cup
1 month ago

From the early 1990s until 2011, New Zealand Rugby became obsessed with winning the World Cup. It wasn’t healthy and probably, looking back on that period, their desire to win a title, was in fact the greatest barrier to the All Blacks achieving that goal.

Those 20-odd years were painful. They were maybe even a bit daft, the way the administration of the professional game was built exclusively around one thing, which is why we saw some incredible and ill-advised decisions being made.

In 2002, head coach of the All Blacks, John Mitchell, was allowed to keep most of his likely World Cup squad at home, rather than take them on an end-of-year tour to England, France and Wales.

In 2007, Graham Henry as head coach was given permission to take 22 players out of the first seven rounds of Super Rugby to give them an extended pre-season to prepare for the World Cup. It may have been a good idea in theory, but in practice, it left the players undercooked and out of sorts by the time they reached the tournament in France.

These sorts of decisions, as well as continually allowing All Blacks coaches in World Cup years to treat the Rugby Championship as an irrelevancy, built in the public mind this idea that the only thing that mattered was lifting the Webb Ellis trophy.

A large swathe of All Blacks spent the bulks of the 2007 Super Rugby season away from their franchises to prepare and condition themselves for the upcoming Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

But the most significant and consistent act which built the importance of World Cups in the public arena, was the way All Blacks coaches were contracted.

NZR fell into this trap of making its coaching appointments to fit in with World Cup cycles. It began when John Hart resigned after the bronze play-off match in 1999. After that, NZR locked into offering coaches two-year contracts that would begin in year one of a cycle and if all went well, they would extend for another two years through to the World Cup.

If, and as it turned out when, the sitting coach didn’t win the World Cup, they would run a post-tournament process to find the next coach and repeat the cycle.

It meant that a coach could only validate their appointment by winning the World Cup, which didn’t happen until 2011. And that tournament was the system at its most intense.

The incumbent coaching team of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen had been appointed through to the 2007 World Cup. When the All Blacks bombed out in the quarter-final, the expectation was overwhelming that they would not be re-appointed.

But against the odds, they were, with NZR’s board saying they felt the trio could learn from what happened in France and use it to win the 2011 tournament.

Even though they won 13 from 15 tests in 2008 and 13 of 14 in 2010, Smith felt their eight-year tenure ended up being judged on what happened on one six-week tournament in 2011.

It was a brave call and ultimately the right call – but it meant that the pressure intensified on the coaching group. Even though they won 13 from 15 tests in 2008 and 13 of 14 in 2010, Smith felt their eight-year tenure ended up being judged on what happened on one six-week tournament in 2011.

And he was right, it did – and it was only after the All Blacks finally won a tournament for the first time since 1987, that the system changed.

Hansen was appointed as head coach in 2012 and given the customary two years. When the All Blacks won 12 and drew one of their 14 tests that year, his contract was extended through to 2015. But the big change came at the end of 2014. NZR broke rank and having seen the All Blacks go through 2013 undefeated and suffer just one defeat in 2014, they moved early to extend Hansen’s contract through to 2017.

It was a big, big shift because it meant NZR was saying that Hansen wouldn’t be solely judged by what happened at the 2015 tournament. NZR chief executive Steve Tew, said at the time: “Steve is the first All Blacks coach to be given a contract extension beyond a Rugby World Cup, which demonstrates just how much faith the board and our wider organisation, together with the All Blacks players and management, have in him.

“He has huge experience and under his guidance, the All Blacks have reached remarkable heights. To have him re-sign as head coach through to 2017 gives the All Blacks the continuity they will need as they make the transition into 2016 and beyond, following next year’s Rugby World Cup.”

Steve Hansen with All Blacks captain Kieran Read. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Hansen broke the cycle, but it only proved temporary, because NZR has turned the clock back by deciding to stick with incumbent head coach Ian Foster through to the 2023 World Cup.

It was an unexpected decision made earlier this week, given the weight of evidence against retaining Foster. The All Blacks had lost five of six tests from the end of 2021 to August 2022.

The results were clearly disappointing, but they were only part of what was an overwhelmingly negative picture. The All Blacks hadn’t looked like winning any of those five tests. They were behind early in each and never had sustained periods of pressure where it looked like they might storm back.

In particular, their performances in the second and third tests of the July series against Ireland and the first Rugby Championship match in Mbombela were as insipid and meek as anything the All Blacks had produced in the professional era.

There was no sign of improvement or advancement, no evidence the team were progressing or building towards a defined vision. Adding against Foster was the fact that the All Blacks had lost to Argentina for the first time in history in 2020 – a year in which the All Blacks won three, lost two and drew one of their six tests.

The expectation was strong that Foster would make changes to his coaching team at the end of 2021 but he didn’t. He made a pitch to the NZR board to allow him to keep his assistants on the basis he would upskill and mentor them.

In 2021 they won 12 of their 15 tests but their victories came against Tonga, Fiji, Argentina, Australia, USA and an under-strength Welsh team. They had to play four big tests – two against South Africa and one each against Ireland and France and they only won one.

Most damning of all, however, was the assistant coaches John Plumtree and Greg Feek reviewed poorly with the players in 2020 and 2021 and attack coach Brad Mooar didn’t receive glowing feedback either.

The expectation was strong that Foster would make changes to his coaching team at the end of 2021 but he didn’t. He made a pitch to the NZR board to allow him to keep his assistants on the basis he would upskill and mentor them – fast-track their development and also bring in former Ireland supremo Joe Schmidt as a selector and analyst.

On top of that, he said he would also bring in Andrew Strawbridge as a part-time skills coach and while he and the board thought this all made sense, the wider rugby populace shook their heads.

This didn’t make sense at all. It seemed to be denying the facts and failing to deal with the core issue of competency. Instead of making changes, he was layering his coaching team to hide deficiencies in others members of the group.

Springboks All Blacks coaching changes
Former All Blacks assistant coaches John Plumtree and Brad Mooar. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The unavoidable truth is that the All Blacks can’t be a finishing school for aspiring coaches and when Ireland came to New Zealand in July 2022 and won the series 2-1, it was actually not that big a surprise.

The All Backs had played with a lack of clarity and cohesion. Those in decision-making roles such as Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith looked confused and uncertain and the forwards didn’t front at set-piece or the breakdown in the two defeats.

They also conceded two tries to rolling mauls and they looked like a team paying for Foster’s hubris in believing he could fix coaches who simply weren’t up to it.

When it came time to debrief the series the senior players delivered an unambiguous message that they couldn’t be ignored a third time. They made it clear changes had to be made and out went Plumtree and Mooar and in came Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan.

Still, despite making those changes, the feeling ahead of the All Blacks test at Ellis Park against the Boks on August 14 was that even should they somehow win, it wouldn’t be a strong enough case to keep Foster.

But here we are now, with Foster still in charge and having finally been endorsed by his employer to be at the helm of the team through to the World Cup.

On the surface, it looks like it’s the single most incredible risk any board of directors has taken on an international coach in the professional era.

“Ian has provided management with his own recommendations, and these have in turn been recommended to the board who have unanimously agreed they have absolute confidence that Ian and this coaching group are the right people to lead the All Blacks through to the World Cup,” NZR chair Stewart Mitchell announced days after New Zealand had beaten South Africa 35-23 at Ellis Park.

There are some who believe that decision was made on the basis of the last 12 minutes at Ellis Park where, somehow, the All Blacks found the resilience to fight back from 23-21 down and a man in the bin, to score two late tries to win.

On the surface, it looks like it’s the single most incredible risk any board of directors has taken on an international coach in the professional era.

It could be said they have gambled their 2023 World Cup dream on a 12-minute blast of rugby which may have shown the true character of this team, or may also have been an aberration and the result of their desperation.

Sam Cane with the Freedom Cup following the All Blacks’ win over the Springboks in Johannesburg. (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

But more fairly, what they have gambled on, is that the introduction of Joe Schmidt as attack coach is going to transform the team. And specifically, they are gambling that Schmidt’s intimate knowledge of European rugby will be what enables the All Blacks to win the World Cup.

The board, after all, had to effectively decide between keeping Foster at the helm or axing him for Scott Robertson. To answer the question, they had to specifically frame it as which of the two options would give the All Blacks the better chance of winning the World Cup.

The presence of Schmidt and the likelihood of the All Blacks having to play Ireland, France and England swung the decision in favour of Foster.

But now of course, to justify it, the All Blacks have to win the title next year. That’s it. That’s the simple truth – that we are back once again to judging a four-year tenure on a seven-week tournament.

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