Weekend Herald

Foster gets to flick switch

Test­ing time: Wait fi­nally over for new All Blacks boss

- Liam Napier in Welling­ton Sports · Rugby · New Zealand national rugby union team · Wellington, New Zealand · Crusaders · South Africa · Ireland · Japan · New Zealand · England

False starts give way to a new dawn. Ten months af­ter be­ing ap­pointed All Blacks head coach, Ian Foster fi­nally gets to flick the switch on his era.

Foster has been here be­fore. Eight years he was Steve Hansen’s right- hand man.

Now, though, that dy­namic has shifted. This is Foster’s time.

The All Blacks are his re­spon­si­bil­ity to bear, shape, evolve. Good, supreme, bad or ugly, the buck stops with him.

Through the scrapped July tests, and many sched­ule changes there­after, it has been a long wait — 400 days to be ex­act — for the All Blacks to play their first match since the dis­ap­point­ment of last year’s World Cup. It’s also, for the record, the long­est pe­riod be­tween home tests in 50 years.

Dur­ing that time, Foster has planned, plot­ted and plot­ted some more as he seeks to ab­sorb those World Cup lessons. He and anointed cap­tain Sam Cane, who as­sumes Kieran Read’s lead­er­ship man­tle, are well ready to re­lease the anx­ious ten­sion bub­bling within.

“Am I ner­vous? Of course I’m ner­vous,” Foster says ahead of the Bledis­loe Cup opener in Welling­ton to­mor­row af­ter­noon which as of yes­ter­day had 5000 tick­ets yet to sell. “That’s why you’re in this job — it’s a great feel­ing to have. It gets you go­ing.

“Like ev­ery­one, I’ve gone through frus­tra­tion and hope, and done that cy­cle about 10 times. The last 10 days, in some ways, I’ve wanted to play the test ev­ery day. Now I’m in that nor­mal mode, I’m pretty happy with where the team is at to­day.

“The emo­tions are there but I love test matches. There’s no bet­ter feel­ing, there’s so much at stake.”

Change within the All Blacks may have been more pro­nounced had Cru­saders coach Scott Robert­son, in many ways the pub­lic favourite, beaten Foster to the top job.

Yet with sev­eral new man­age­ment ad­di­tions — for­wards coach John Plumtree, at­tack coach Brad Mooar and for­mer All Blacks prop Greg Feek — as well as the in­take of rook­ies which in­cludes Caleb Clarke, Hoskins So­tutu and Tupou Vaa’i who are in line to de­but from the bench this week­end, Foster has set about in­te­grat­ing change and con­ti­nu­ity.

“Clearly the man­age­ment changes are go­ing to take a while but the signs for me are we’ve got some re­ally good peo­ple with a fresh way of look­ing at some things and that’s given me plenty to pon­der.”

On a per­sonal level, some things have changed; some re­main the same. The un­der­ly­ing sense of calm this week sug­gests the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion hasn’t con­sumed Foster yet. With a 17- year Bledis­loe Cup record to pro­tect, it would be easy for pres­sure to build.

“Some­times it does and some­times it feels like I’ve been here a while. I go through both those feel­ings. I feel like I’ve walked this jour­ney the last eight years a lit­tle bit. I know it’s in a dif­fer­ent role but a test match is a test match.

“There’s a bit more rest­ing on the shoul­ders but I al­ways felt ac­count­able for the role I did, so noth­ing has changed from that side.”

Plumtree has coached for 23 years — in South Africa, Wales, Ire­land and Ja­pan — be­fore re­turn­ing to New Zealand to lead the Hur­ri­canes. In the short win­dow work­ing along­side Foster, he has been im­pressed.

“I’ve worked with a lot of great coaches,” Plumtree says. “I’ve loved the way Fozzie goes about his busi­ness. I love the way he plans, builds the week, in­structs us and what to look for; the way we dis­trib­ute in­for­ma­tion with­out mak­ing sure the play­ers get blocked.

“He’s got a great way of switch­ing on and off and mak­ing us feel calm and re­laxed and have fun as well. He’s a very ex­pe­ri­enced coach at this level, an in­tel­li­gent guy who knows ex­actly what it takes to pre­pare a test team.

“I’ve re­ally en­joyed work­ing with him. I thought I knew it all but I’m way be­hind. You can see why he’s got mas­sive re­spect from the play­ers.”

From an on- field per­spec­tive, Foster is promis­ing change. Coaches and play­ers in­sist they have moved on from the World Cup semi­fi­nal de­feat to Eng­land but, for the pub­lic at least, the maiden test of 2020 will be viewed as the first step on the long road to rec­ti­fy­ing that re­sult.

“The lessons from that have been and gone,” Foster says. “We’ve pulled that apart over the early months of the year and now we don’t need that bur­den to feel ex­cited and pres­sured to play for the All Blacks — the jersey de­mands that any­way. This is about this team, about mak­ing sure we set the foun­da­tions in this test and the sub­se­quent ones.

“We’ve got to get more con­sis­tent with our set piece and make sure we use it as a firm base for our game. We’re also look­ing hard at grow­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of our de­fence, par­tic­u­larly when teams want to play a very phys­i­cal, di­rect game.”

A ma­jor fo­cus will be at­tempt­ing to com­bat the vari­a­tions of rush de­fence which sti­fled the All Blacks at­tack in re­cent sea­sons.

“It’s the go- to in the game. Line speed is gen­er­ally get­ting quicker but there’s dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple do that. There’s a few new thinkers in there from an at­tack side, so we’re look­ing at re­shap­ing a few things, which we’ve started.”

To­mor­row, one could say, is the first of many judg­ment days for Foster. So, too, Cane whose pro­mo­tion has been ques­tioned given the depth of the loose for­ward stocks.

“He’s pre­pared, he’s ready. I like where he’s at,” Foster says of his skip­per. “He’s been thought­ful all week. He’s a bit quiet, softly spo­ken. He doesn’t look grumpy but he doesn’t look happy and that’s prob­a­bly a nice place to be. He’s fo­cused.”

Cane, like Foster, has been forced to wait af­ter first be­ing asked to as­sume the cap­taincy in Fe­bru­ary.

“His abil­ity to con­nect with ev­ery player in the group is a huge as­set in terms of how he can lead,” All Blacks hooker Codie Tay­lor says. “That goes a long way for those young boys com­ing through.”

The ag­o­nis­ing wait for Foster and Cane is al­most over. An­tic­i­pa­tion will build to nerves, which gives way to adren­a­line, pride and pas­sion.

The sun has set on the HansenMcCa­w- Read era. To­mor­row, it rises for Foster- Cane.

“We’ve been think­ing about it for a long time,” Foster says. “We know it’s been a tough year for ev­ery­one and the fact we can get back on the park guar­an­tees this will be a spe­cial oc­ca­sion.”

Am I ner­vous? Of course I’m ner­vous.

All Blacks coach Ian Foster

 ?? Photo: Mark Mitchell ?? Ian Foster /
Photo: Mark Mitchell Ian Foster /

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand