Opinion: All Blacks to go to the well one more time for Ian Foster’s legacy

Geoff Parkes
Alll Blacks Coach Ian Foster during Rugby World Cup.

All Blacks Coach Ian Foster during the Rugby World Cup.

Whatever happens at Stade de France on Saturday night, this is the final week of Ian Foster’s All Black coaching career.

It’s rare that sportspeople – players and coaches – exit on their own terms. And so it is for Foster; win or lose the Rugby World Cup final, Scott Robertson will step into the role, and interest will shift to seeing whether or not he is able to parlay his remarkable run with the Crusaders into similar success with the national side.

What remains for Foster is an opportunity to cement a legacy of being one of four All Black coaches to have won a World Cup, one of ten in total. Or not, if South Africa successfully goes about their own legacy build and become the first nation to win four titles.

The solid citizen

No matter the enormity of the prize, Foster’s own circumstance is something he has been at pains to play down. Such modesty is to be expected from anyone in the same position, but when Foster says, “I’m just proud to be part of the team”, and “There’s not a personal agenda, this is about the All Blacks”, as he did immediately after the semi-final win against Argentina, it’s easy to believe him.

As a teammate of Foster’s for a brief period in the mid-1980s, in a minor district provincial cricket side, I can attest to his selflessness. The son of a Presbyterian minister, being the only non-drinker in a team where heavy drinking was embedded in the culture could not have been easy. But Foster was always in the thick of things; engaged, respected and a consistently reliable performer.

It was the same for his rugby career; a record 148 games for Waikato, plus another 26 for the Chiefs. That was no ordinary environment either, running the tiller at fly-half in a team containing two future high-profile international coaches, in Warren Gatland and John Mitchell, plus Kevin Putt, who went on to coach the Sharks in South Africa.

A famous and influential New Zealand rugby figure once described Foster to me as “a solid citizen, top value.” For those not fully versed in understated Kiwi vernacular, that’s just about as high as praise gets.

But some of the same qualities that have endeared Foster to NZ Rugby board members since he entered their system in 2005 as Junior All Blacks coach have not served him so well in the public arena.

Not as scholarly as Graham Henry, not as sarcastically witty as Steve Hansen, and not as charismatic and playful as Robertson, Foster proved too ‘old school’ for much of the New Zealand rugby public.

Not a natural media performer, Foster, as his predecessors did, has also been happy to hide behind the ‘wall of steel’ the All Blacks’ media unit employs to control the narrative and manage the brand.

It was said that Foster lacked credibility, having failed to win a Super Rugby title in eight seasons as head coach of the Chiefs. Only once did his team make the final, a 61-17 thrashing at the hands of the Bulls in Pretoria in 2009, and his overall win/loss record finished at a modest 50%.

Success with the All Blacks

As a result, his role as Hansen’s deputy throughout a golden run of success for the All Blacks has been downplayed. The mob had made up their mind; the All Blacks were successful in spite of Foster, not because of any positive influence he may have had.

With Hansen stepping down after the 2019 World Cup semi-final loss to England, there was a sense that this was the time for a ‘freshen up’, for NZ Rugby to appoint a new coach from outside the existing cohort.

But Hansen and Foster pitched hard for the benefits of cohesion, and a smooth and easy transition was made, albeit at the cost of some anger around the ‘clubby’, ‘look after your mates’ feel to it all.

As a result, while every All Black coach is subject to intense scrutiny, Foster has received more than his share; at times vitriolic, sometimes vindictive and often disproportional to outcomes.

Since Foster became head coach, the All Blacks have continued their remarkable Bledisloe Cup winning run, and they have won all four Rugby Championships on his watch from 2020 to 2023.

But they also lost a home series to Ireland and lost twice to Argentina. Both of those debts have been paid back in spectacular fashion at this World Cup, but nevertheless, for some critics, those stains can never be properly washed away.

After a convincing 26-10 defeat to South Africa in Mbombela last August, Foster’s All Blacks had lost five of their last six matches, and time was called. Robertson was readied, and NZ Rugby boss Mark Robinson prepared to confirm the change.

Senior players implored Robinson for a stay of execution, and an announcement was duly put on hold until after the follow-up Test, in Johannesburg.

All Blacks arriving in Johannesburg again

That was the equivalent of the proverbial hangman allowing the condemned prisoner a final statement on the gallows with which to try to save his soul. The players did the talking on Foster’s behalf, the manner of their 33-25 win one of the most remarkable statements in a New Zealand versus South Africa rugby history littered with them.

And so, the Foster caravan rolled on, albeit with two assistant coaches, John Plumtree and Brad Mooar, becoming collateral damage.

There is a sense that this week, the All Blacks have once again arrived in Johannesburg. This time, not playing for Foster’s job, but playing for his legacy. To ensure that his place in All Blacks history will be justly represented.

Even a win won’t be enough to satisfy some, who will deflect credit to forwards coach Jason Ryan and the input of hard-nosed Joe Schmidt. But rest assured, a loss will be all down to one man only.

The values that Foster spoke about at last Friday night’s press conference – selflessness, team first, loyalty – work both ways. As he invests his-self in his players and the black jersey, his players return the favour.

These are values, of course, that are not exclusive to New Zealand. One of the things that makes this World Cup final so enticing is that South Africa’s players have a similar loyalty and self-belief in Rassie Erasmus and his coaching staff.

This All Black side has already shown how deep they are prepared to dig for their coach. They will have no trouble digging even deeper, one last time, this Saturday night.

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