Two wins and a shaky draw from his first five matches was not what All Blacks bosses – or the New Zealand populace – had in mind when Ian Foster was somewhat controversially appointed coach after the team’s Rugby World Cup failure.
The national calamity – feared, if largely unspoken about, since the underwhelming appointment of Steve Hansen’s former assistant late last year – has become a reality.
This is especially so when one of the defeats came against Argentina, a nation to whom New Zealand had never previously lost, and a side so undercooked it would still have been waiting for its turn on the hot plate of an Aussie barbie had it been one of the massive steaks the South American country is so famed for.
Unsurprisingly, last weekend’s loss to the world’s 10th-ranked team has been rated by Kiwi media among the worst of all time. Such debates are subjective and take little account of the magnificence of Los Pumas’ performance but, given the circumstances, it is a hard argument to dismiss.
That is even more so when examining the key component of the All Blacks’ performance – or lack thereof. Their failure came down to one word: attitude.
For all its complex rules, the essence of rugby is surprisingly easy to work out. The game is essentially a collection of individual duels played out over 80 minutes, where the winner is the side whose players best combine mental strength with their physical prowess.
A “whatever it takes” attitude is what drives the individual into making a tackle, then getting up as quickly as possible and back into position to be ready to make one more. It is also what disciplines an individual to trust his mate inside or outside of him, so as not to rush out of the defensive line too quickly, or hold onto the opponent on the ground for too long, thereby denying the opposition quickly recycled ball, and invoking a penalty.
And attitude is most definitely what prevents a player from even considering initiating a push and shove with an opponent, or blatantly slapping one on the head in front of the referee, actions that can only end in sanction against the individual and his teammates.
Not only was that attitude lacking against Argentina in Sydney, it was also absent in Brisbane the week before, when Dave Rennie’s young Wallabies engineered a 40-point turnaround from their record defeat seven days earlier.
The result at Suncorp Stadium was dismissed by most – erroneously as it turned out – as the usual Wallabies one-off, beating New Zealand’s “B team” in a dead rubber that did not matter. Only it wasn’t. The Wallabies did not so much beat the All Blacks as beat them up, and the significance was not lost on the Argentines.
It might have been a much-changed line-up seven days later, allegedly the “A” team this time, but aspects of the contest were strikingly similar, even down to the late All Blacks try which left a score that did not reflect the size of the actual gap between the two sides, just as it had in Brisbane.
One side was prepared to endure physical and mental hurt to achieve a result. The other was the All Blacks. The recipe for catastrophe included poor discipline, passivity in contact and indifferent option taking under pressure, with the level of performance steadily unravelling as the consequences of the outcome loomed ever larger in the panicked players’ minds.
Most damning was the ill-discipline, as it reflected a preparedness to take shortcuts born of gross over-confidence but also of a lack of trust in their mates to retrieve the situation once a one-on-one duel had been lost.
Foster later lamented that individual and collective discipline had been spoken about all week during the match preparation. No doubt it was spoken about again at half-time, by which time the All Blacks were 16-3 down, having misguidedly turned down a shot at goal for a much-needed three points only to have skill execution let them down when Richie Mo’unga kicked the penalty dead in goal.
Deja vu. A week earlier it was same time, same decision, same result after they had mucked up a lineout adjacent to the Wallabies’ goal line immediately before running to the sheds. So much for learning from your mistakes.
That there was no attitudinal change, even after all the half-time talking was done, is an indictment on the playing group, an indictment on their leaders but, most particularly, an indictment on the coaches. It is their job to set the scene. They pick the team, create the environment, and push the mental buttons to make sure the collective attitude is right.
While Foster might have retained the Bledisloe Cup, the requirement to win just two of the four Tests meant the odds were always stacked in his team’s favour.
It has not helped the “old boys club” perception of the decision-making at New Zealand Rugby that Scott Robertson, who was overlooked for Foster, has since won a fourth Super Rugby title and given unsubtle hints of his international aspirations.
It is one of the great ironies that union insiders say a key argument against Robertson was his plan to lean heavily on those who had served him so well at the Crusaders. Sam Whitelock was put forward as captain of a Robertson-coached team. Jason Ryan, his four-time Super Rugby-winning deputy, was to take charge of the forwards.
Instead, Foster’s cadre of coaches includes the former Hurricanes coach, John Plumtree. While we can only guess at the internal operations within the All Black environment, Plumtree’s weekly media profile is easily the greatest among Foster’s assistants, and it seems a stretch to suggest that the prominent roles of players with whom he has had a long association, such as the Barrett brothers, TJ Perenara, Ardie Savea and Dane Coles, is mere coincidence.
Alongside skipper Sam Cane, Jordie Barrett is the only player to have started in all five Tests, and his older brother Beauden and Savea the only ones not to have been officially “rested” from any of the games, having only missed one because of injury and childbirth respectively. Both were rushed straight back into the starting team as soon as they were available.
So instead of supposed Crusaders’ influence, it looks like we have the Hurricanes. They even play like it: fast, loose, ill-disciplined and inconsistent; world beaters one-week, self-destructors the next.
Even if the guesswork is correct – and Plumtree’s voice is the strongest among an otherwise inexperienced assistant coaching group – that is at Foster’s choosing and is his responsibility. It is his team. But remember, he did not appoint himself.
New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey and chief executive Mark Robinson were on the interview panel that selected Foster and on the board that signed off his appointment. They must take their share of responsibility for what has transpired.
Through an unhappy 12-month period during which many of the New Zealand Rugby leadership’s biggest decisions have been contentious, one of the first and most debated is already looking like it could be the most costly of the lot.