Opinion: New Zealand Rugby drop the ball again with Ian Foster ‘World Cup’ backing

Colin Newboult

As the idiom goes, ‘the devil is in the details’ and New Zealand Rugby’s decision to support the embattled Ian Foster was not entirely surprising, but the sheer reverence of the statement certainly was.

Foster was, quite frankly, never going to be sacked after Saturday’s impressive effort, one which showed that the players are very much united behind him. There was passion, intensity and, most importantly but slightly surprisingly considering the head coach’s tenure so far, a discernible identity to their game plan. For all the talk and assurances made by the 57-year-old that the All Blacks were heading in the right direction – despite five defeats in six – the result and performance at Ellis Park was the evidence.

Muddled thinking

To go from ‘one more loss and you’re sacked’ to ‘you’re the man to take us to the World Cup’ does not sit well, however, and rather sums up the muddled thinking of the governing body over the past few years. NZ Rugby have put themselves in a difficult situation from the outset by making an appointment they probably knew was going to be universally unpopular – yet they still did it anyway.

After taking an eternity to make the decision, even though they knew way back in 2018 that Steve Hansen was going to leave his post following the 2019 global tournament, they were in an unenviable position. They saw prospective candidate after prospective candidate take other jobs, leaving them with two options: Foster and Scott Robertson.

It was a choice between continuity and upheaval and they went for the conservative option. Ultimately though, considering their gradual decline under Hansen – for which Foster was a key part of the coaching staff – they needed the latter. Cue cries of derision from the supporters, who have never been on the side of the former Chiefs head honcho, when Foster was appointed on a curiously short two-year deal. And when results started to go awry, it left the governing body in a very tough situation, but – and this is the crucial point – it was all of their own doing.

Covid didn’t help either, although it certainly provided a stay of execution for the head coach as the schedule proved much kinder than it would have otherwise been. They still lost two of their four Tri Nations matches in 2020, including a first-ever defeat to Argentina, but there was no northern tour to ramp up the already-intense scrutiny Foster was under.

Fortuitous schedule

In 2021, that pressure was eased again as they beat Tonga and Fiji during the mid-year series and won the Rugby Championship. By that point, Foster’s contract was coming up for renewal and, on the basis of the results, in the governing body’s mind it left them with only one option. His contract was duly extended.

But as the games have rolled on and the defeats have racked up – after finally playing the better teams in world rugby on a consistent basis – it began to look an extremely bad decision. Foster went on the tour to South Africa knowing that he was close to the sack and after a 26-10 reversal in Mbombela it seemed inevitable that he would be out of the job by now. And yet he remains, with apparently the full backing of the board, and not just until the end of the Rugby Championship but until the completion of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Chairman Stewart Mitchell’s statement said: “[The board] have unanimously agreed they have absolute confidence that Ian and this coaching group are the right people to lead the All Blacks through until the World Cup. This has been privately and publicly validated by our players and various conversation with our high performance team.”

“World” and “Cup” are the watchwords here. Sacking Foster would have been harsh on the basis of Saturday’s performance – easily their best during his time in charge – but, equally, putting a timestamp on his tenure has only increased the pressure on the coaching staff and governing body.

Defeats to Argentina and Australia are unthinkable at this stage but, given their form under the 57-year-old, they would not be surprising. One loss over the next month would just about be acceptable but two would pretty much make his position untenable, making a mockery of New Zealand Rugby’s call to give him until the global tournament.

Getting through unscathed

Even if the All Blacks get through the rest of the Rugby Championship unscathed, there is then the prospect of the northern tour. It was at that stage in 2021 which really started Foster’s decline and they have another four matches to navigate this October and November.

Fortunately for New Zealand, none of the fixtures feature either France or Ireland – alongside South Africa the best teams in the world – but Foster will certainly have to avoid going down to Japan, Wales, Scotland and England if he wants to stave off more public and media scorn. Ultimately, the head coach’s saviour may well be their schedule, evading the French and Irish until at least the World Cup and not facing the Springboks on a two-Test away tour in the Rugby Championship next year.

Despite NZR’s proclamations and fervent backing, Foster is still teetering on the brink. By placing their faith in him until the World Cup, they have hindered, not helped, the head coach and left them open to further embarrassment should it all go wrong.

Having previously received criticism for their ambiguity, as well as their unwillingness to comment on Foster’s position, the governing body no doubt wanted to bring clarity to proceedings. But by taking out “through until the World Cup”, they would have supported their man without pinning themselves to a timescale.

Changing the head coach is not ideal but in 2018 South Africa showed that making the brave call can reap its rewards. Foster may well be the man to take the All Blacks to glory, but recent results and performances suggest that NZ Rugby will pay the price for their conservativeness and indecisiveness come the global tournament in France.

READ MORE: Opinion: The pros and cons of backing Ian Foster as All Blacks head coach until the 2023 Rugby World Cup