Barely a year out from the Rugby World Cup and the All Blacks are in crisis. Not just a mini-crisis or sort-of crisis, but a full-blown catastrophe.
Come Monday morning, they are likely to be without a coach as South Africa look set to sound the death knell for the Ian Foster era in Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash at Ellis Park – where, in a proclamation that would have been unthinkable for most of the country’s rugby history, a New Zealand defeat feels inevitable.
Just 13 months before they take on France in the opening game of the World Cup in Paris, they will almost certainly be starting the hunt for a man to lead them there. And if they aren’t, then it would take the most absurdly optimistic All Blacks fan to believe that anything other than disaster awaits at the global showpiece.
Almost poetically, France have become the antithesis of this iteration of the All Blacks – a stylish, dynamic team with a clear attacking structure, installed by a world-class coaching team with a clear, cohesive vision and executed by a slew of world-class players who have bought into the project and whose ceiling has not yet been reached.
By contrast, New Zealand have lost five of their last six games, are down to a record-low fifth in the world rankings, suffered a first home Test series loss since 1994 when Ireland beat them last month and just ended their heaviest defeat to South Africa for 94 years last weekend. And frankly, the fact the scoreboard only read 26-10 at the final whistle flattered the All Blacks. Foster has the lowest win percentage of any All Blacks coach since the 1970s and legitimate debates about whether captain Sam Cane would get in the starting XV of any tier one northern hemisphere side have started popping up on podcasts.
There will be plenty of time to examine the wider malaise. From the complete erosion of trust between New Zealand Rugby and the players, only exacerbated by the recently-signed controversial $NZ200m (£106m) deal with US-based private equity firm Silver Lake, to the ever-diminishing results of their youth sides and the question of whether appointing a relatively untested continuity candidate from the Steve Hansen era in the form of Foster, when the Hansen machine had been showing plenty of cracks towards the end of his tenure already, was a sensible move in the first place. But the more immediate issues are on the pitch.
They have no discernible attacking plan, or at least lack one that shows any signs of being effective, with any success enjoyed over the past 18 months invariably coming from the individual brilliance of one of their handful of remaining world-class operators such as Beauden Barrett , Will Jordan or Ardie Savea.
Against the Springboks last weekend, the All Blacks demonstrated a litany of issues. They completely failed to deal with the aerial bombardment – no better illustrated than by Kurt-Lee Arendse’s opening try – they were dominated at the breakdown and obliterated at scrum-time by both the South African starters and their front-row “Bomb Squad” coming off the bench. An absence of attacking cohesion left Barrett’s trickery and line breaks as the only sort of platform to build from. The fly half’s reward for being a rare, consistently shining light in recent dark times? Being demoted to the bench this weekend, as Richie Mo’unga is preferred at No 10 to pull the strings.
Arguably even more concerning was Foster’s analysis in the immediate aftermath: “We’re bitterly disappointed but I felt it was our most improved performance this year,” said the coach, to the bemusement of almost everyone who had watched the game. He cited the improved defense and increased competition at the lineout in comparison to the Ireland series as positives but these are scant consolation at best.
Earlier this week, the New Zealand Herald – the country’s largest newspaper and generally a decent bellwether for the national mood – ran a front-page editorial calling for Foster to be sacked. “A decent man who is out of his depth in a brutal business,” the Herald claimed in a piece that ran under the headline “It’s time for change.” An eviscerating put-down and a timely reminder that the men’s national rugby team are very much front-page rather than back-page news in the Land of the Long White Cloud, meaning things have probably now reached a tipping point for Foster.
New Zealand Rugby’s chief executive Mark Robinson recently refused to guarantee the coach’s position beyond the two games against South Africa and, given that there was nothing last weekend to suggest anything other than a repeat victory for the Springboks in Johannesburg on Saturday, attention will almost certainly be about to turn to the question of who can lead them out of this predicament in just 13 months?
There’s no doubt the All Blacks can still alter their destiny at France 2023. They only have to look at their opponents this weekend to find recent evidence of a team turning things round just before a World Cup – the Springboks emerging from rock bottom to win the 2019 edition. Even this doesn’t augur well for Foster however, as it took a change of coach – ending the tenure of Allister Coetzee, who was overseeing similarly historic nadirs in South African rugby to those the 57-year-old is currently scribing for New Zealand , around 18 months before the tournament and bringing in Rassie Erasmus – to engender a reversal of fortunes.
The All Blacks are in crisis mode and Foster looks set to be sacrificed to prevent the impending cataclysm.