25 Nov 2021

Sacking Foster as All Blacks coach would help arrest decline in NZ rugby

5:55 pm on 25 November 2021

Opinion: You think this current situation with the All Blacks is bad? Heck, the next few years for rugby in New Zealand could be even worse.

All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster.

It is shameful that Ian Foster became All Blacks head coach and an indictment upon this country's high-performance coaching programme, Hamish Bidwell writes. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The All Blacks are an average international rugby team. They're not elite, they're no longer the game's standard bearer, they're just one of those teams that sits somewhere between, say, fourth and eighth in the world.

And don't take my word for it. All Blacks head coach Ian Foster has taken to lumping New Zealand in with South Africa and Australia, when it comes to trying to mitigate his team's 2021 record.

Since when did the All Blacks seek to be just like everyone else? Since when did they offer excuses for mediocre form? Since when did they start measuring themselves by other people's yardstick?

But, hey, these are unprecedented times, after all.

One of the sticks that critics have used to beat the New Zealand Warriors with over the years has been that the players don't care enough. Losses don't wound them.

Look, they're laughing and joking with the opposition at fulltime. See, it doesn't hurt them to lose. They're soft, they're losers, they're an embarrassment.

So how about Foster, then? How about his chummy on-field chat with France's Fabien Galthie, following the 40-25 defeat at Stade de France?

Did he look a loser? Is he an embarrassment?

Look, I don't care if the All Blacks lose. I'm not a fan, it's not my job to "get behind the boys'' in the down times or to rejoice in the good.

But I believe there are fans out there at the moment who aren't particularly upset when the team loses, such is their dissatisfaction with Foster and New Zealand Rugby (NZR).

France's fly-half Romain Ntamack scores a try during the Autumn Nations Series rugby union match between France and New Zealand at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris, on November 20, 2021. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)

First five Romain Ntamack scores a try for France in their match against the All Blacks at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris on Sunday. Photo: AFP

For the record, I never thought he should have been appointed All Blacks coach, didn't deserve to have his contract extended until 2023 and should be sacked now to save people more embarrassment.

But the problems run deeper than Foster and his staff.

Lack of coaching depth

Let's start with coaching. It is shameful that Foster became All Blacks head coach and an indictment upon this country's high-performance coaching programme.

But it's just as bad that Scott Robertson is the only viable alternative to Foster right now.

It's seems like only five minutes ago that we had men such as Dave Rennie, Jamie Joseph, Pat Lam and Chris Boyd at the helm of Super Rugby sides. Beyond them, Robbie Deans, Vern Cotter and Warren Gatland were among a long list of blokes doing impressive things with teams elsewhere.

Jamie Joseph Japan rugby coach

Jamie Joseph is among a long list of coaching talent now working with overseas sides, Hamish Bidwell says. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

For a country with New Zealand's collective rugby IQ, history and pathways to have just Foster and Robertson as obvious All Black options is actually pretty alarming.

But it hardly ends there. Did you see next season's Super squads? They're full of absolute nobodies.

The All Blacks pretty much have to be bullied into playing franchise footy, where their team-mates will largely be kids.

Until very recently you could measure the strength of the All Blacks by the calibre of blokes who either couldn't ascend to that level or only reached it briefly. We had dozens and dozens of seasoned professionals who created a depth at Super level that other nations could only dream of.

I say dream. But the reality is that that whole tier of New Zealand talent now props up competitions in Japan and Europe. Teams there didn't have to dream of building depth, they simply went out and bought ours.

Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua are a further drain on New Zealand's dwindling stocks, as is news of a change to rugby's international eligibility laws.

In the short term, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji will be able to put former All Blacks in their test teams. But in the medium to long term, outstanding Pasifika players will make those teams their first choice.

They won't need to be on NZR contracts to play Super and test rugby. They will be able to opt for their nation of birth or heritage and plenty of them are going to.

Rugby folk in this country need to get honest with themselves. They need to recognise that the game is not in great heart.

Foster's excuses don't stack up

You're not a heretic or a traitor if you don't cheerlead for Ian Foster. More face is going to be saved than lost, if NZR sack him now.

Australia, Argentina, South Africa, Ireland and France have all outplayed the All Blacks on his watch and that's not good enough. Worse is that Foster has either insisted that progress is being made or offered up excuses for the poor performances.

I really didn't think that blaming external things such as bubble life - which aren't unique to the All Blacks anyway - was really New Zealand's style.

We have become complacent as a rugby nation. Ireland international Gordon D'Arcy described us last week as patronising.

Either way, we have created an environment where the folk at NZR believe themselves to be infallible and we have allowed the myth of All Black exceptionalism to take hold to the extent that the team has now alienated themselves from the public.

All the while defenders of the faith lecture us about how amazing the All Blacks actually are and why we have to back Foster to right the ship.

Frankly, fans are entitled to expect better from all concerned.

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