Ian Foster is a marked man.
Lose on Saturday, and the All Blacks coach faces the sack.
New Zealand Rugby is not usually in the business of axing coaches after six games, but the All Blacks win so often it’s largely been a moot issue.
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If they become the first All Blacks team in 22 years to lose three successive games – and two of those being to eighth-ranked Argentina who’d never beaten them previous to a fortnight ago – the intense fury from the Kiwi public would be unprecedented.
When John Hart’s 1998 team lost five games in a row – only the second time in All Blacks history, following the 1949 side – he was kept on largely because the World Cup was the following year.
Of course, after the Kiwis were stunned by France in the 1999 semi-final, Hart was sent packing.
New Zealanders were already divided on Foster upon his succession to the throne vacated by Steve Hansen after last year’s World Cup semi-final loss, with most believing Crusaders coach Scott Robertson was the best candidate to rebuild for the 2023 campaign.
Now, after two losses, two wins and a draw to start his tenure, Foster has given his critics further ammunition.
This will be the final match of the year for the All Blacks, and if they lose NZR will struggle to justify keeping Foster on for next year, having initially only given him a two-year deal, presumably to keep the Robertson option on the table for the World Cup in France should things go awry.
In these strained economic times, the national body can ill afford four million disgruntled fans.
The 24-22 loss to Australia in Brisbane, and subsequent 25-15 humiliation to Los Pumas has left many across the ditch questioning the All Blacks’ resilience.
Fullback Beauden Barrett was clearly unimpressed this week when asked about the All Blacks’ heart.
“I don’t think you can question our heart,” Barrett said.
“You can probably question the missed opportunities, the lack of taking them, we learned in our review that there were a lot more than what we felt out in the game.
“Our intent may not have been where it needed to be at times, that’s something we can learn from, but there’s no doubting our heart and our desire to win and to do the best in this black jersey.”
For Barrett, the problem is obvious.
“It’s clearly been our discipline,” Barrett said.
“The last two games you’ve seen referees being forced to make some big decisions and a lot of penalties against us, and probably both teams to be fair.
“We can’t give them any opportunity to do that. That starts with us and our discipline.
“You look at our attack, and our defence, you can pick that apart as much as you want, but it starts with us not giving the refs anything.”
The All Blacks, despite their stumbles, remain on top of the Tri Nations table on points differential and if they secure a bonus-point victory in Newcastle on Saturday night, will be tough to pull back with one game remaining between the Wallabies and Argentina on December 5.
“We want to finish strongly in this competition, and finish our year on a high,” Barrett said.
“We clearly saw opportunities in the review (after the Argentina loss). We didn’t feel or see that in the game.
“We’re kicking ourselves for missing those opportunities and whilst it felt like they gave us nothing, looking at the tape is always easy, and as long as we learn from that and look to exploit it this weekend.
“We’ve got an opportunity to win the competition.”
‘He made people want to watch rugby’
– Tim Horan
Like so many, I was shocked and saddened by the news of Christophe Dominici’s tragic death.
Dominici epitomised the very best of French rugby flair and his performance in the 1999 World Cup semi-final win over New Zealand inspired one of the tournament’s greatest ever comebacks.
He was the sort of player that makes people all around the world want to watch rugby, but it wasn’t just on the field where he stood out.
On the Monday morning after France beat the All Blacks, the Wallabies had a team meeting to talk about our game plan for the final and a lot of it involved keeping the ball away from Dominici because he was so dangerous.
When we beat France to win the World Cup, the first player who came into our dressing room to have a beer with us was Dominici.
His death is also a tragic reminder to everyone, not just about the pressure international athletes face during their careers – but also when they hang up the boots.
A lot of people might think that the ups and downs professional players face just comes with the territory so they should learn how to take the good with the bad, including any criticism from the media and public that comes their way.
That’s true to some extent but we also have to remember that players are human, too, and need support as well, especially in those first two to five years after they retire.
I liken it to being on a bus with 40 of your best mates for 10 years then all of a sudden your time comes to get off the bus.
At first, everything is ok, but after a while, you want to get back on but can’t.
All of the various sporting players associations have a lot of really good mental health and wellbeing programs in place.
The Australian Rugby Union Players Association (RUPA) has been at the forefront of these types of programs and is implementing them across the country.
It’s timely to think about the effect all the criticism on the current team is having.
The Wallabies have the potential to be like that French team of 1999, but it’s going to take some time and we all need to be patient.
There’s no doubt the Wallabies will be disappointed in themselves after last weekend’s 15-15 draw with Argentina, but we need to keep it in perspective.
Test matches are bloody hard to win and this is a big, strong Pumas team that beat the All Blacks seven days earlier, so they were never going to be easy.
For most of the game, the Wallabies were on top and I’m sure when they look back, they’ll realise they just needed to stick with the game plan that was working. Argentina are one of those teams where you can’t just play ball in hand and expect to win.
That was one of the areas where it went wrong for Michael Cheika.
I’ve always been a big fan of Michael Cheika because of the passion and drive he had for the Wallabies team, but no matter how hard you try you can’t please 100 per cent of people by playing ball in hand rugby.
Sometimes in Test matches you have to give up fast, ball in hand rugby and just kick for space and turn the opposition around.
Once you do that and start learning to put games away, the flair and all the other stuff that people love to watch will come but for now we still have to be patient.