The All Blacks lost their coaches, but not their direction heading into a vital opening test of 2022, and the result was one of their most impressive first-up efforts in recent times.
After Saturday night’s commanding 42-19 victory over Ireland at Eden Park, in the first of three straight matchups against Andy Farrell’s side, you could have been forgiven for wondering just how important, how influential the All Blacks coaches actually are.
Both head coach Ian Foster and his chief assistant John Plumtree missed the entire week after testing positive for Covid-19 last weekend. Defence chief Scott McLeod joined them in the isolation ward on Monday and by Thursday scrum boss Greg Feek had made it four marked absent.
Reinforcements were summoned. Former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, who will be a selector come the Rugby Championship, came up from his Taupo home for Tuesday and Thursday training. Renowned scrum guru Mike Cron also joined the fray by week’s end.
It’s understood Schmidt’s influence, in particular, was important and his experience and coaching manner went down well with the players. It’s no secret a larger role in the national setup awaits him whenever he wants it, and this past week probably confirmed that.
But there had been a constant message all week – the players had taken ownership earlier and more conclusively than they ever had. Foster and Plumtree zoomed in, but their contributions were notably limited. The resultant performance suggested it was a formula that yielded the right results.
Young midfielder Quinn Tupaea, in his eighth test, and sixth start, said he felt the team had handled a disruptive week well. “Our leaders did a great job,” he said. “They took more of a role on … I’d say like a player-coach sort of thing. The boys had no problems getting on with their work, and being first week there was a lot of energy in the camp.”
Skipper Sam Cane, who along with Sam Whitelock, Beauden Barrett and one or two others led the player takeover, expressed his satisfaction with the way the adversity was handled.
“It wasn’t ideal by any means,” he said. “This group has been through a lot in the last 18 months, and it put us in good stead for this week in terms of rolling with the punches. We’ve been together a while, there’s some good experience, and guys just stepped up and we had a really good week considering all that went on.”
Inspirational No 8 Ardie Savea, another of the grizzled types who led the response, said it was notable that amid the mayhem the All Blacks barely missed a beat in their buildup.“We kind of didn’t notice much [different],” he said. “We had Foz and Plum on the Zoom calls when we had our meetings, but the management that stood up in their place did a fantastic job and the leaders did their thing. It was smooth throughout the week and the boys just got stuck into it.”
Loosehead prop George Bower, who put in an impressive shift, admitted he’d even been inspired by the change-up, entering fanboy mode over the chance to soak up some of Cron’s wisdom.
“That was my first time being coached by Mike,” said the second-year international. “He only spoke for probably a minute at the captain’s run, and I was blown away. He’s an awesome scrum coach, and I’m looking forward to working with him next week while Feeky is out.”
Asked what had blown him away, Bower added: “It was his aura, his history, how he’s brought up some of the world’s best scrummagers. I was like, ‘whoa, this is one of the best scrum coaches in the world’. He’s a good man, Crono.”
What will be interesting is what, if any, adjustments Foster makes as things get back to normality in Dunedin. He called the week’s effort by the senior players in Auckland “phenomenal”, and if he’s smart he finds a way to tap into that again. And again.
Meanwhile Tupaea revealed his crucial first-half try, via Beauden Barrett’s pinpoint grubber, had come about because he’d been over-ruled by his vastly experienced team-mate.
“We won it off a lineout, they had committed a few numbers to that ruck, and me and Baz looked at each other, saw the space, and he nudged it through. I called a different call, but he saw it different, and I’m glad he did.”
Tupaea said it had been important to win the physical battle after the lessons of Dublin, and made it clear the All Blacks had not been lacking motivation.
“Both losses were disappointing for the squad and definitely the country,” he said of the defeats to Ireland and France that wrapped up 2021 on such a low note. “Reading social media over the last few months and especially the last couple of days, we were really keen to get this one … it sat with us a lot over summer.”
This content was originally published here.