When Steve Hansen announced last December that he was going to step down as All Blacks head coach after the World Cup, it was the green light for senior New Zealand Rugby staff to draw up a credible list of candidates and start making phone calls.
If one of the senior suits in Wellington made contact with Jamie Joseph, David Rennie, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, any of these men may have felt more appreciated and had the necessary time to weigh up a decision on taking the most prestigious job in world rugby.
Maybe these coaches didn’t feel like the time was right to lead the All Blacks either. Or perhaps didn’t want that weight of pressure over their staunch shoulders.
From the outside, it’s hard to believe New Zealand Rugby could have limited the field to ensure Hansen’s assistant coach of eight years Ian Foster won the race.
While there are many conspiracy theories around the recruitment drive, the key belief is that Foster was a done deal before the selection process even began.
The Hamilton man, though, has rightfully earned his stripes, is something new and knows the current crop of players extremely well. It’s a change in voice but stability at the same time.
Continuity and succession planning have become key pillars of the All Blacks, and Foster represents that in spades.
Despite not holding a head coach role since leaving the Chiefs in 2011, the 54-year-old has a wealth of experience and knowledge to drive New Zealand forward again.
He’s clever in his press conferences, knows how to play down big questions and put pressure back on the opposition when necessary.
His predecessor Hansen was a fantastic coach and boasts a stunning win ratio (86.92 per cent) only few managers can dream of.
Two World Cup triumphs is a serious achievement but his reign will be marred by that disappointing defeat to England in the World Cup semi-final.
Not one shot was fired by the All Blacks that day in Yokohama.
Now into a new World Cup cycle, Foster and Co need to find a captain and adequate replacements for a handful of veterans. For the first time in 10 years, it’s a genuine re-building job.
Ben Smith, Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock, Dane Coles, Aaron Smith, Ryan Crotty and Joe Moody are all class acts but, aged 30 plus, the reality is only one or two will be around for the 2023 World Cup.
Maybe it’s the right time to make the key tweaks and draft in some rising stars.
Foster is not a new voice to the players but he’s bound to want to reshuffle old tactics, the general team structure, and bring in new players.
But while the odds appear to be stacked against Foster, he certainly feels he can change the trajectory of the national team over the next two years.
While New Zealand rugby fans would have been aware of Foster and the tremendous work he did over the years as an assistant, he has still found himself in a position of having to win approval from a cynical public who were rooting for Scott Robertson to win the race.
Crusaders coach Robertson, young and hip, was the people’s choice, with his fresh views, philosophies and immense likability.
A three-time Super Rugby-winning head coach, he would have been considered a certainty to lead any international side, especially given there is a Under-20 World Championship crown in his CV as well.
It will be difficult for Robertson to take when he arrives back with the Crusaders in the New Year, especially knowing he is at the peak of his powers and has a bucket load of recent success to his name.
That’s his greatest value and, in 2021 when Foster’s contract expires, unfortunately Robertson’s stock may not be as high and his options may be more limited.
If Foster had beaten a stacked field to take the job, there could be no complaints about his appointment.
He could say he won the fight on merit. As it is, the outcome has an asterisk beside it with many believing the right man was cruelly overlooked.
Irrespective of the normal groans from the New Zealand public, a new head coach will enjoy a honeymoon period of support due to the optimism created by a different approach and fresh ideas.
And, with a powerful backroom team of Greg Feek, John Plumtree, Brad Mooar and Scott McLeod behind him, Foster has the men, experience and creativity to inspire All Blacks back to the pinnacle of the world rugby rankings.
What happens in two years’ time is anyone’s guess with Schmidt or Gatland the likely kings to take the throne.
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