Liam Napier attempts to evaluate an All Blacks season that morphed from very good for the first 12 Tests to alarmingly bad at the climax. (Pages 10-13)
Only those hunkered down in a soundproof igloo in Antarctica could have missed the cacophony that followed the underwhelming end to the All Blacks’ year.
Losing successive Tests to Ireland and France to finish the season with three defeats in a calendar year for the first time since 2009 (when five were lost) was always going to prompt a backlash. That’s the nature of the beast when it comes to the All Blacks. Expectations, no matter the circumstances, remain exceedingly high.
Ian Foster’s All Blacks won the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship titles before embarking on their northern tour but, with the fallout that followed their final two Tests, you could be forgiven for thinking they had bombed out in the Rugby World Cup pool stages.
Foster is a lightning rod for the disaffected. The vocal majority clearly believe he should not have been appointed following the 2019 RWC semifinal defeat to England, and maintain that same view around his contract extension for two further years prior to the Rugby Championship.
The All Blacks’ unwanted records – the first twin defeats in the north in the professional era adding to the worst season in 12 years – fuel the Scott Robertson brigade.
While the All Blacks won 12 of their 15 Tests and scored a record 101 tries and 720 points – boosted by notching centuries against heavily weakened Tonga and USA teams – the blunt reality is they lost three of the four heavyweight encounters against the Springboks, Ireland and France that were always going to define their season.
In times of passionate objections and high emotion, perspective gets lost.
Many of the realities associated with life on the road during a historic 12-week tour – one that saw the All Blacks traverse six countries while confined to a restrictive Covid-19 bubble – have been lost.
So, too, the challenges attached to senior players missing large chunks of the season. It’s easy to forget Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock and Dane Coles missed the Rugby Championship, the latter two working their way back to fitness after long injury layoffs, while Richie Mo’unga only returned for the second Boks Test off the bench.
Aaron Smith, arguably the All Blacks’ most influential figure, didn’t feature for three months after remaining at home for the birth of his second son and only rejoined the team for the final Test in Paris.
The All Blacks carried a 39-man squad on their northern tour, regularly rotating entire teams, which enabled them to build depth in some areas but also compromised their ability to grow established combinations. While those frequent changes helped counter physical fatigue, the mental burden of being away from families for such an extensive period, combined with so few avenues to escape the rugby bubble, undoubtedly took their toll.
Continue this story in our December 2021 – January 2022 issue.