By Aiden McLaughlin
Three Rugby Championships, one Tri-Nations (in 2020 when South Africa were absent), the retention of the Bledisloe Cup throughout and Rugby World Cup runners up, by a single point.
32 wins, 12 losses, two draws, a first (and second) defeat to Argentina, a first (and second) loss to Ireland at home, a first home series defeat since 1994, the biggest ever defeat to South Africa, a first ever Rugby World Cup pool loss. A 69.5% win record that sees him lie 18th among All Blacks coaches that have coached four or more Tests.
In line with public opinion, the legacy of Ian Foster’s time in charge of the All Blacks is a mixed bag.
Had some or all of those firsts never happened, or if the All Blacks had won the Rugby World Cup, some people would have still said that Foster was the wrong appointment to replace Sir Steve Hansen in 2019 and you’d never persuade them otherwise; and that’s one of the main reasons why Foster was always up against it during his time in charge.
After eight years as All Blacks assistant coach alongside Hansen, Foster was the continuity option; the promotion from within. The other candidate that was interviewed, Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson, was the chance to reward sustained domestic success, rip things up and start again. But many All Blacks fans have long memories and rather than look solely at his time with the national side, Foster’s time in charge of the Chiefs was constantly raised as a reason for him not to get the top job; eight years, one Super Rugby final and a 50% win record.
Incoming New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive Mark Robinson greeted Foster to the top job by saying the following:
“These are exciting times. Ian has pulled together a very strong team and he is an outstanding person in his own right with a high-quality set of values. He is committed to stamping his own mark on the team and it’s clear that he and his coaching team want to bring a new and fresh energy into the All Blacks environment.”
Unfortunately, we weren’t told that day who that coaching team actually were. It’s thought Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown declined Foster’s invitation to be involved. In time, confirmation came that Scott McLeod was retained in the set-up and was joined by John Plumtree, Greg Feek and Brad Mooar.
Robinson also had words for Scott Robertson:
“As someone who knows ‘Razor’ well as a former teammate, he was a very impressive candidate and these decisions are never easy. We know Razor is an outstanding coach and I have no doubt he’ll have a big future in our game at international level.”
Covid came along in early 2020 and the sporting world was put on pause. In May, with the All Blacks itinerary up in the air, Foster named Sam Cane as All Blacks captain.
“We wanted to confirm Sam now because he’ll play a key role helping us plan for whatever the future looks like and will be working behind the scenes with the other leaders,” said Foster.
Many followed the logic, but many didn’t. Why not wait until the first squad is announced, or even when the first fixture is confirmed? What if Sam Cane isn’t even a first choice in the starting XV? What if he’s injured? Why not Sam Whitelock? Why not Ardie Savea? Remind me, why is Foster in charge again? Scott Robertson would have been better…social media and the watering holes and coffee shops had all the questions and answers.
“The great thing about the All Blacks is that the leadership group is full of captains and experienced players already, so I’m just really looking forward to working closely with that group and doing my best to lead them and the rest of the squad,” said Cane.
2020 contained just six Test matches; four against Australia (two wins, a draw and a loss) and two against Argentina (a win and a loss). With Covid at the forefront, It was a first season that no-one could have predicted.
The fixture list ramped up in 2021 and South Africa were back. There were 15 Tests including the centenary fixture against the Springboks in Townsville, which the All Blacks won. South Africa would gain revenge the following week.
Where 2020 meant a lack of fixtures due to Covid, 2021 saw a draining period on the road, away from families, under huge restrictions, as they played their Rugby Championship fixtures and then embarked upon their first Northern Hemisphere tour since 2018. Wins against the USA, Wales and Italy were followed by defeats in their last two matches of an exhausting year, to Ireland and France. It was the first time since 1998 that they had finished the season with two straight defeats.
2022 saw the visit of Andy Farrell’s Ireland for a five-match tour. The first test victory at Eden Park was a positive, but within a fortnight, the men in green had secured a 2-1 series victory and the time had come for change. Plumtree and Mooar, retained at the end of 2021 despite talk of receiving negative reviews from the playing squad, were the two coaches to depart.
“Right now, I am really feeling for two fine men who are great rugby coaches that made an enormous contribution to the All Blacks,” Foster said. “I have no doubt both coaches will go on to great success and I want to thank them for their hard work.” Foster had been loyal to both, arguably too loyal for too long, but something now had to be done.
Jason Ryan came in from the Crusaders to run the forwards, while Joe Schmidt formally started his role as selector, and would also work with Foster on overall strategy and attack play.
Two Tests away in South Africa were next up and with a 26-10 defeat in the first in Mbombela, the pressure on Foster ramped up again. Another defeat at Ellis Park the week after and it was likely to be the end of the road. But, with backs against the way, the All Blacks won 35-23 with senior players then pledging their support of Foster to Mark Robinson. New Zealand Rugby confirm Foster will lead the team into the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Within a couple of weeks, they lose to Argentina in Christchurch.
The All Black finish the year with two wins, against Wales and Scotland, and a draw, against England. It would mean a 2022 record of eight wins, four losses and one draw, their worst win/loss record since 1998. They also had a new coaching set-up as they embarked upon Rugby World Cup year.
Despite assurances that Foster would take the team through to the World Cup, there was ongoing speculation about who would be the All Blacks coach after that tournament. In early February, Scott Robertson spoke to the media:
“The next two weeks is big. It’s one of those times I’m just waiting for NZR to make the announcements really. Like you have conversations in the background, but as an employee and understanding how important you go through clear processes. Hopefully we know in the next few days,” he said.
It took a few weeks rather than days, but at the start of March, Dame Patsy Reddy, chair of NZR confirmed what had been suspected.
“New Zealand Rugby has a responsibility to the game with respect to the appointment of our national coaching teams. This is particularly important in a global rugby environment where there is significant competition for elite coaching talent. Following wide-ranging consultation and after carefully weighing up all scenarios and the key lessons from 2019, New Zealand Rugby is now commencing a process for selecting the All Blacks Head Coach from 2024. New Zealand Rugby will not be making any further comment after today until a decision has been reached. This will be concluded in the next four to six weeks” she said.
Ian Foster immediately made his position clear.
“As I said last week, I felt the best thing for our team and for our entire management group was to have this process done after the Rugby World Cup,” he said. “That hasn’t happened, but we will accept the decision and move on.”
“My sole focus remains unchanged. It is to lead this All Blacks team and management group in our planning and preparation, so that we go to France with the goal of winning the Rugby World Cup and making this country proud. I won’t be re-applying for the job of head coach.”
As expected, Scott Robertson was appointed to the head coach role from 2024. But for many, Foster was hard done by. The man in possession deserved a chance to go to the big dance and see out his contract before having to argue his case for a new one; how can you judge a performance in full when the last act hasn’t played out? The NZR process and the appointment of Robertson seemed to contradict the vote of confidence Foster had received just six months earlier. In an attempt to bring clarity and unity to the situation, NZR had succeeded in dividing the rugby public even more.
The last Test before the World Cup brought concern; a record defeat to South Africa at Twickenham was far from ideal, but there were mitigants. A red card, and a number of first choice players missing through injury. A defeat to France in the tournament opener would mean they played someone in green in the quarter final and with their victory over South Africa in pool play, that would be Ireland. But the series defeat of 2022 would galvanise the All Blacks. Lessons had been learnt. Under Foster as head coach, Ryan and Schmidt brought new ideas, new inspiration and defence coach Scott McLeod had brought a new defensive system. It was tight but the All Blacks prevailed and with a semi-final win against Argentina, South Africa would be the final challenge.
As a country united behind the All Blacks in the build-up to the match, there was a sense that even those that disagreed with Foster’s initial appointment had increased respect for the head coach and sympathy for the way he had been treated. For all those unwanted firsts, there had been plenty of silverware in the cabinet since 2020. For all the worry and defeats, they were in a Rugby World Cup final.
Now it’s all over, Foster will move on and Robertson will take the reins. A popular choice, he will have plenty of challenges and things won’t always go his way. However, if he simply shows the amount of resilience his predecessor did, in the face of ongoing criticism and uncertainty, he’ll be well on the way to success.
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