This was probably the last thing Ian Foster needed – the old Gaffer, Sir Graham Henry, coming out and adding to the scrutiny this first-year All Blacks coach finds himself under heading into just the second test match of the year.
Of course when your team under-performs to the level the All Blacks did last week in Wellington, held to a 16-16 draw by a new-look Wallabies side in their own first match under new Kiwi coach Dave Rennie, then a certain amount of attention is inevitable. It goes with the territory.
Foster accepted as much this week in Auckland when he spoke about his anticipation for Bledisloe II at Eden Park on Sunday (4pm kickoff), where the All Blacks haven’t lost a match since 1994, and haven’t been rolled by the Wallabies since 1986. A repeat of last week’s subdued effort would be simply unthinkable.
“I love these weeks,” said Foster defiantly. “These are the weeks there’s a real edge around the camp. We know we’ve got to respond. We want to respond from our own standards perspective and we’re excited about doing that. We said last week was about putting a marker down. We did and so did they and we’ve got to respond.”
Naturally, the All Blacks are no stranger to these positions. Just last year they were humbled 47-26 by the Wallabies in Perth in the leadup to the World Cup, only to strike back in Auckland seven days later with a 36-0 demolition job of their own. Foster will be hoping for a similar response on Eden Park today, but knows there are no guarantees.
But what of this pressure that’s been decidedly building around Foster? It’s real for starters. His appointment has not been without its critics and after that opening effort in Wellington, where the All Blacks forwards were outmuscled, and their backs stilted, it has undoubtedly intensified. There are many out there in this country who do not believe NZ Rugby got it right with this decision – and they’re not backward about saying so.
Henry’s comments at the Wairarapa Bush rugby awards function on Friday night will have done nothing to lessen the scrutiny on Foster, who served eight years as Steve Hansen’s deputy, and shaded the uber-successful Scott Robertson for the All Blacks’ top job in the wake of the 2019 World Cup failure.
You might think Henry would be Team Foster, given the continuity link between his regime, Hansen’s and now Foster’s. But his words on Friday night did not appear to indicate so, when he told the crowd in attendance:
“Dave Rennie is a fabulous coach. New Zealand Rugby c**ked that up. They should have been connecting with Dave and [Japan coach] Jamie Joseph and other people around the world to keep them involved. [But they] didn’t contact Dave Rennie for three years, and Dave Rennie is fabulous, so he’s going to do a great job with Australia.”
And the 2011 World Cup-winning coach did not exactly provide a ringing endorsement of Foster when he was steered in that direction. He said it was “too early” to provide any sort of a judgment on the new man’s suitability, but, pressed to choose between Rennie and Foster, nominated the Wallabies coach as the better operator.
“I think we stuffed up quite frankly because he [Rennie] is a quality person and a quality coach and you’ve seen it straight away with the Wallabies,” said Sir Ted. “They will play for him, and that’s no disrespect to Fozzie, that’s just circumstantial.”
As mentioned, Foster will not be judged on two tests. He will box on through what’s left of 2020 and 2021, and most likely through until the next World Cup, unless things go really pear-shaped. Better informed judgments will be made in due course.
But there is no mistaking that this is an early juncture he needs to respond to. Or at least his team needs to.
The All Blacks were horrible last week. The forwards had their moments but, a la the World Cup semi, never got on the front foot against a committed pack. And the backs failed to establish any rhythm or flow with a paucity of quality possession. What’s more, tactical adjustments were glaringly absent. When the match was there to be stolen, there was simply no plan to set up for a dropped goal.
Foster has heard the comments about the team’s “aura” being lost and so forth, and brokers no argument with them because he accepts they failed to meet their own standards last week.
“Is it time for a statement? Yes it is,” he says. “We want to get our levels to where we want to be, and there’s a group here working really hard to do that. But we’ve got to learn quick.”
His team is interesting, to say the least. He has returned Beauden Barrett to fullback, when many would have preferred him at No 10, and left Jordie Barrett on the right wing, when he is clearly the best No 15 in the New Zealand game. Jack Goodhue and Richie Mo’unga have been retained on the back of sub-par efforts.
Up front, he is down Sam Whitelock, with concussion, and puts his faith in rookie Tupou Vaa’i in the second row. Dane Coles will be charged with setting the aggression tone at hooker and Shannon Frizell gets a second chance in a loose trio lacking collective impact last week.
The sky won’t fall in if these All Blacks don’t produce a Bledisloe bounceback. But Foster’s world will get decidedly more uncomfortable as they head to Australia for what’s left of the Rugby Championship. Sam Cane and his pack must lead the response, and Beauden Barrett must ignite the backs into something decidedly more incendiary.
Then, and only then, will New Zealanders be happy. Maybe even Sir Graham among them.
All Blacks: Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue, Caleb Clarke, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (capt), Shannon Frizell, Tupou Vaa’i, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, Scott Barrett, Hoskins Sotutu, TJ Perenara, Rieko Ioane, Damian McKenzie.
Wallabies: Tom Banks, Filipo Daugunu, Hunter Paisami, Matt To’omua, Marika Koroibete, James O’Connor, Nic White; Harry Wilson, Michael Hooper (capt), Ned Hanigan, Matt Philip, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Taniela Tupou, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, James Slipper. Reserves: Jordan Uelese, Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa, Rob Simmons, Liam Wright, Jake Gordon, Jordan Petaia, Reece Hodge.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus).
This content was originally published here.