Foster’s appointment at All Blacks was universally expected but not universally accepted

There was certainly no WH Auden moment in New Zealand when it was announced that Ian Foster would be the new All Blacks head coach.

Foster’s appointment at All Blacks was universally expected but not universally accepted

There was certainly no WH Auden moment in New Zealand when it was announced that Ian Foster would be the new All Blacks head coach.

No one was stopping any clocks or wondering why the world was carrying on as normal in the wake of this news.

It wasn’t even news, really. Everyone knew Foster, the former Chiefs coach who joined the All Blacks in 2012 as an assistant, was going to get the job.

It wasn’t that the other candidate, Scott Robertson, wasn’t any good. Far from it, as the former All Black has already made history by becoming the first man to coach a Super Rugby side to three consecutive titles.

Robertson would have been an excellent All Blacks coach. He was the people’s choice, too, as he’s enigmatic and unorthodox — the sort of breath of fresh air many in New Zealand feel the game needs.

But Robertson’s strength — his charisma and lack of conformity — were also his weaknesses, as New Zealand Rugby doesn’t really do radical.

It is an organisation that remains steadfastly conservative — measured and deliberate in everything it does and hence that’s why Foster was always going to get the job.

He was the establishment figure and the establishment were going to need an enormously compelling reason to veer from Foster.

Continuity worked for New Zealand Rugby in 2007 when, in the face of enormous public criticism, they reappointed Graham Henry despite the All Blacks suffering their worst World Cup in history.

That decision paid off when Henry led the All Blacks to World Cup glory in 2011 and it paved the way for Hansen to be elevated from his role as assistant.

Being loyal to Henry worked, and promoting from within worked when Hansen led the All Blacks to another World Cup title in 2015.

And while the All Blacks weren’t able to make it three in a row in Japan, they still convincingly beat South Africa and hammered Ireland.

They also won a lot of games between 2016 and the 2019 World Cup, scoring a lot of tries and playing a lot of good rugby.

So while Foster’s case to be promoted wasn’t as emphatic as Hansen’s had been eight years earlier, it was still incredibly strong.

Or at least the appointment committee thought it was incredibly strong and despite their insistence the decision was agonising, they found it relatively easy to pick Foster ahead of Robertson.

But it’s a decision that while universally expected has not been universally accepted.

The lack of love for Foster is driven by two factors.

The first is that there is an overwhelming feeling among New Zealand rugby followers that the continuity business has run its natural course.

Henry was great, Hansen was great but it is time for something new.

The popular view is that the All Blacks need revolution not evolution at the moment and for all their victories in the last two years, there were periodic signs of them being a little stale in attack and lacking an edge.

A total clean-out would have been better is the consensus.

The second factor is that Foster’s previous experience as head coach was not a massive success.

He was in charge of the Chiefs between 2004 and 2011 and in that period they once made the final where they fell to a record defeat.

The year after Foster left and was replaced by Dave Rennie, the Chiefs won consecutive titles and have made the playoffs every year since.

So the optics aren’t great: Rennie who won two Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs has been snapped up by the Wallabies, while Robertson who has won three from three with the Crusaders was rejected for Foster.

It seems curious to reward the man with the worst Super Rugby record with the All Blacks job but NZR believes that test experience of any kind is more valuable than Super Rugby success.

Foster, though, is at least cognisant of the fact his public approval rating is low and he knows that the only way it will lift is if he delivers a winning brand of rugby.

But he’s also hopeful that in the process, he’ll be able to reveal a little more of his true self.

He’s been in Hansen’s shadow for the last eight years, tasked with holding the party line and by and large not giving much away to the media.

He did that role well enough, but it’s apparent there is much more to Foster. He’s almost as dry as Hansen. Just as quick with the one liners and ready to use humour as a disarming tool.

What’s also likely to become more widely apparent about Foster is that he’s a deep thinker.

He came into the All Blacks to coach a backline that was being run by veterans Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, and Conrad Smith.

If Foster had been full of jargon and well-spoken nonsense, those three would have sniffed him out as a fraud in less than a week.

But all three found Foster compelling.

They were blown away by his vision and understanding of the game and for all the sense the All Blacks lost their attacking edge in the last World Cup cycle, the facts show they scored a record 297 tries between 2016 and 2019.

No other side in world rugby scored more than 200 in the same period and while Foster may be seen as the underwhelming choice now, in another two years the mood of the nation may be vastly different.

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