Foster gets to flick switch
Testing time: Wait finally over for new All Blacks boss
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