What next for Ian Foster and his struggling All Blacks?

Ireland’s historic series win intensifies the pressure on the New Zealand head coach and his players.

The All Blacks leave the pitch in Wellington.
The All Blacks leave the pitch in Wellington.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IAN FOSTER MUST have been the only Kiwi in Wellington willing to dig back into the previous 80 minutes, but the other topic of conversation he was being offered was even more uncomfortable. 

Even before Ireland captured a seismic series win in style today, Foster’s position as All Blacks head coach had been a major talking point in New Zealand.

He’s been feeling the heat long before Ireland touched down in the country almost four weeks ago. There was pressure when his team lost to France last November. There was pressure when they lost to Argentina for the first time ever a year previously. That 25-15 reversal came a week after the All Blacks had lost 24-22 to the Wallabies in Brisbane, those results marking their first back-to-back Test defeats since 2011.

They’ve now lost a home series for the first time since 1994, and lost successive home Test games for the first time in 24 years. There are players in his squad too young to remember those games.

Even before today’s result in Wellington, Foster’s win ratio was the worst of any New Zealand coach in the professional era. It’s now dropped to 66.7% and there’s every chance that number will get uglier. Their next two outings see them take on the Springboks on back-to-back weekends in South Africa next month, and they make that trip having lost four of their last five Test games. This month they’ve dropped to fourth in the world rankings – their lowest-ever standing.

ian-foster-during-the-post-match-press-conference Ian Foster faced some tough questions post-game. Source: Photosport/Elias Rodriguez/INPHO

Scan through the immediate post-match reaction pieces across the New Zealand media, and it’s clear some think he shouldn’t even get the chance to atone for this series loss.

Shortly after the full-time whistle sounded at the Cake Tin, Foster’s position was being questioned more loudly than ever. 

Speaking on Sky Sports, former All Black great Sean Fitzpatrick went in strong.

“The style in which they lose the series will be concerning going forward,” Fitzpatrick said.

The questions will be asked. Have they the right coaches? Have they the right head coach? We were out-coached, without question, so they need to decide what they’re going to do in terms of going forward.”

It’s a concerning situation for New Zealand supporters as next year’s World Cup in France inches closer and closer into view.

The issues are many and widespread. New Zealand will always produce plenty of talent, but they don’t possess the same fearsome squad that made them such a force during the Graham Henry and Steve Hansen eras. Ardie Savea was brilliant in Wellington, but other key men haven’t stepped up when needed in this series. The All Blacks captain, Sam Cane, was pulled from the action with 15 minutes to play in the final Test. 

A more pressing issue is how this New Zealand side have struggled with some of the most basic aspects of the game. After last weekend’s fiasco in Dunedin – the All Blacks receiving two yellow cards and one red – they at least managed to keep 15 men on the pitch for the duration of the third Test, but across the series the home side’s discipline has been a problem.

sam-cane Sam Cane was replaced with 15 minutes left to play. Source: Photosport/Grant Down/INPHO

They’ve struggled to get on the same page with referees and have offered up some remarkably cheap penalties. Cane gave away a needless penalty in the lead-up to Josh van der Flier’s opening try today, and Beauden Barrett allowed Johnny Sexton to tack on another three points later in the game when he tackled an Irish player beyond the ruck.

Other basics have let them down too, and what a sight it was to watch an Ireland pack get the better of New Zealand’s forwards in Wellington. The All Blacks won 83% of scrums on their own feed, and claimed just 75% of their own lineouts. They lost four lineouts in the first half alone.

Their game management has also been concerning. Three weekends running, the All Blacks started slowly and allowed Ireland take the early initiative. Once the kings of the comeback, they were only able to wrestle the result back in the first Test. A team that used to embrace pressure now look a little lost when under the pump. 

will-jordan-dejected-after-the-game New Zealand’s Will Jordan dejected after the game. Source: Photosport/Aaron Gillions/INPHO

With a series on the line today, across the opening 40 minutes they desperately underperformed, handling errors haunting them again while they also missed a series of soft tackles. Teams like Ireland and France have evolved and grown over the last couple of years, but at the moment, New Zealand are struggling to keep up.

These are not new issues for this All Blacks team, and their inability to find answers for those questions is why the blame is being laid at Foster’s door. 

The post-mortem will be harsh, and those who wanted change even before Ireland came to town now have an even stronger argument.

Just to make life even more uncomfortable for Foster, there’s a clear and obvious successor lying in wait. 

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Scott Robertson wanted the job when Foster was handed the keys in 2019. Since being overlooked, he’s continued to win in style with the Crusaders. This year’s Super Rugby title made it six championships in his six years with the Christchurch-based side.

There would be complications with getting Robertson in now, and with Foster under contract through to next year’s World Cup, the decision-makers in New Zealand Rugby would need to get the cheque-book out to make that switch happen.

scott-robertson-celebrates-after-the-game Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson. Source: Photosport/Martin Hunter/INPHO

New Zealand Rugby aren’t particularly trigger happy, and the more likely scenario is that Foster will get a chance to turn things around while working with some fresh faces in his backroom team. Joe Schmidt, the man who kick-started Ireland’s recent run of success against the All Blacks, will be in place as a selector for the upcoming run of Rugby Championship fixtures.

Whether he’d like to step into a more prominent position on the All Blacks coaching ticket is a different question. The former Ireland and Leinster boss will enjoy working with his home country without having to take on all the added responsibilities that come with being a the main man.

But even Schmidt’s addition might not be enough to save Foster now. If the All Blacks continue to struggle with Schmidt on board, the pressure on Foster will only intensify. Should there be a marked improvement, then much of the credit will no doubt be sent Schmidt’s way.

Whatever happens, 14 months out from New Zealand’s opening fixture of the 2023 World Cup against France, there are clearly some big decisions to be made.

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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