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19 January 2024
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Will history remember the Ian Foster tenure in a sympathetic light?

Campbell Burnes attempts to evaluate Ian Foster’s four-year tenure as All Blacks head coach and finds that, given so many variables, it’s not easy to pigeon-hole his reign.

It started with a draw and ended in a loss.

In between we saw the slings and arrows of outrageous rugby fortune as the All Blacks struggled to maintain consistency, endured a terrible first half of 2022 and then came home strong in 2023 to almost rewrite the narrative for how we evaluate the Ian Foster tenure.

We finally managed to pin down the man himself for an interview 23 days after that dramatic Rugby World Cup final, not just for balance in this article but for context around why he made certain selections and how he saw things unfolding through some unprecedented times, such as Covid-19, and following on from a successful eight years as assistant to Sir Steve Hansen. Besides which, informed comment is better than me just interviewing my keyboard.

No doubt he has several options on the table around his coaching future – French Top 14 club Montpellier was said to be keen on the day of our interview – and there may even be a book in the offing, though his “wait and see” response was non-committal.

After a losing start to 2022, Foster was a dead man walking until the All Blacks uncorked a determined victory at Ellis Park last year. He then opted not to throw his hat in the ring for the job from 2024 onwards and was clearly peeved about the timing of the process, which culminated in the selection of Scott Robertson as his successor. Public opinion shifted. Many who were highly critical of Foster in 2022, in particular, seemed to have a greater disdain for New Zealand Rugby by April 2023. Some wanted Foster’s All Blacks to win the World Cup to stick it to HQ. One wonders why they didn’t want the All Blacks to win regardless. And yet support should never be taken for granted in this day and age.

While we are looking back at Foster’s four years as head honcho, the man himself prefers to reflect on his time as 12 years with the team.

“Two iconic coaches left after 2011. Ted (Graham Henry) and Smithy (Wayne Smith) set up the All Blacks environment. To come in off their coat-tails was a little bit daunting, but Steve Hansen and I were able to establish a few things. I loved the collaborative nature of the group, with the likes of Crono (Mike Cron), Steve, myself and the senior players. It was challenging. You had to be alert, you had to be smart to convince the likes of Conrad (Smith) and Ma’a (Nonu) that things were going to work. You got tested as a coach,” says Foster.

“Steve really involved me in a lot more of the strategy and politics side of the team. I learned a lot there. It’s been a special time, an amazing time of so many different challenges. It’s a time that I will always treasure.”

The All Blacks were dominant to a large degree from 2012-16 and the class of 2015 that won the Webb Ellis Cup has a claim to be one of the finest All Blacks teams of all time. Foster was the backs/attack coach and he oversaw some prime attacking rugby in that period. Beauden Barrett was at his peak as a first five from 2016-18. He and Foster had a close working relationship.

Uncertainty due to the ever-changing Covid-19 landscape was reflected in a messy first season as head coach for Foster in 2020. The new coaching group included Brad Mooar, John Plumtree, Greg Feek and Scott McLeod. Some of the selections, such as Alex Hodgman, were not quite on point, and the All Blacks were up and down like yoyos, passive in defeat to Argentina in Sydney but brilliant against Australia in Auckland and Sydney to help lock away the Bledisloe Cup and Tri Nations (the reduced Rugby Championship that season). Holding both those trophies through his tenure was a point of pride for Foster.

Some slack was cut to Foster because of the unprecedented challenges of the time, but more slack should have been given by media after the next year when the All Blacks racked up a 12-3 record, losing their last two Tests when mentally fried against powerful Ireland and France sides after the longest All Blacks tour since 1976. Twelve Tests in 14 weeks while confined to your hotel rooms were hardly ‘player welfare first’ stuff.

“We lived in each other’s back pockets. But that was an incredible experience and probably cemented the relationship side of this group. We were tight and had to care for each other,” he says.

What came out in the player reviews was that there was a level of dissatisfaction with Plumtree and Mooar. That came to a head after the 2-1 home series loss to Ireland in July 2022, which plunged the All Blacks into turmoil and very nearly cost Foster his job. It cost Plumtree and Mooar their jobs.

“They are both fine coaches and were growing in the environment, but we probably ran out of runway with people in that space. Tough time, two fine people that contributed. Ultimately you need to be able to connect with players and that’s critical,” says Foster.

Yet it still seems strange why such an experienced customer as Plumtree was not able to draw the best out of the forwards.

The senior players did, however, make a remarkable public show of backing their head coach. It was clear that Foster had not lost the changing room, as the vernacular goes. Sam Whitelock leant his weight to backing Foster’s cause, which was considerable when one might have thought he would be a Scott Robertson man, given his long relationship with ‘Razor’.

It was around this time that Foster’s relationship with the media in general became strained. He had started in 2020 with a view to being as open as possible. While this scribe was not covering the All Blacks on the ground, visions of the interactions through until the World Cup did not indicate a widespread mutual respect. Yet when the All Blacks lose, it is hard to maintain a happy balance, and there are many examples of this during the professional age.

“I care for this team. I’m not interested in running a campaign to win a popularity contest. I always tried to own what I felt needed to be owned. If some media painted that in a different way, then it wasn’t worth the effort to get too involved with them,” declares Foster.

“I like to think I represented the All Blacks well. Some of the media certainly went for the jugular last year. That’s their choice, but they also didn’t acknowledge some of the progress made, like winning the Bledisloe and Rugby Championship in 2022.”

It reminded me of Stephen Donald, who felt that some media did not rate him at all – to the extent that they were unwilling to credit his good rugby for the All Blacks.

“Between the media and my own organisation, it wasn’t easy at times,” says Foster.

That comment was the first hint of how he felt the process in reappointing the next All Blacks coach should have waited until after the World Cup. The saga has been done to death, so we didn’t press Foster on this. There was logic to going early with the decision, as Robertson might have gone offshore, but it meant that Foster did not throw his hat into the ring again, citing the fact it was a foregone conclusion. He was probably right. In fairness to him, he largely kept his dignity in that unusual situation, and the fickle public swung behind him.

That’s also why he’s not willing to definitively define his tenure, preferring to leave that to others – the fans and media.

“Everyone has a different filter. Some view your reign with scepticism because they probably didn’t want you in the first place. Others were willing to back you and they’ll see things in a different light,” Foster says.

Rugby News writer Phil Gifford listed Foster at No 9 in his list of the top 20 All Blacks coaches of all time, but with the caveat that he would have reached No 5 if the team had won the World Cup. That’s how close the margins are when evaluating how good a coach is. Another Rugby News scribe, Richard Knowler, said in his November Final Whistle column that Foster had earned the right for history to judge him kindly for, amongst other reasons, making the big calls like dropping Mark Telea during the World Cup for breaching team protocols. It was always ‘team first’ for Foster.
The All Blacks under Foster won 15 and drew one of their last 19 Tests. Where they were passive and clunky over the first half of the 2022 campaign, they looked much more direct, fluent and aligned for most of 2023. The injection of Joe Schmidt and Jason Ryan to the coaching staff was clearly positive, as was the switch of Jordie Barrett to second five. The forwards sorted out the scrums once there was agreement that Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax were the two best props, and the pack in general played with more starch.

It was still a funny old 2023: imperious in the first three games, scratchy, at best, in the next three, including a record defeat to the Springboks at Twickenham, and then building nicely through the World Cup. Injuries and suspensions threatened to throw major spanners in the works. Fans were genuinely worried the All Blacks would not beat Italy. But when they click, as they did that day in Lyon, in a scoreline eerily similar to what the 2002 Crusaders did to the Waratahs, the All Blacks are hellishly hard to stop.

Foster is unwilling to put labels on games, so I’ll quote myself: the All Blacks played their best rugby of his reign in the demolition of Italy, even if Kieran Crowley’s charges were not exactly resolute in defence.
“I thought our 2023 campaign was pretty spot-on. I felt the planning was right. The coaching group was relatively new but strong. To me, we had the best scrum in the world by the end of that World Cup,” Foster adds.

“We were all gutted with the final. It would have been so good to get across, but we felt like we gave it everything we got.”

The All Blacks were hard done by with the officiating, certainly with the Aaron Smith non-try, which was taken back five phases, outside the regulations. But they also had their chances. Maybe if Rieko Ioane had carried the ball under the right (left) arm, he might have scored. Maybe if they had landed one more goal (of two). Maybe if Cane had not had his yellow card upgraded to red. Lots of maybes.

But the crucial match on the road to the final was the 28-24 quarter-final victory over Ireland, the first time the All Blacks had entered this phase of the World Cup as underdogs. It was a classic contest, a close contest, though the All Blacks were the best team, even if they had to repel 37 phases at the death. It was Sam Cane’s finest hour and probably Foster’s finest hour in four years. An exit then may have spelled very different views of his legacy.

“That quarter-final was special but the 2019 quarter-final was equally so. Ireland had beaten us the year before. There were a lot of satisfying moments. Every time we won a Bledisloe and Rugby Championship, for example. I take a lot of pride in that. Some people take that for granted. It’s hard not to look at the Ellis Park game last year and what that gave this team,” he says.

Foster spoke warmly of Ardie Savea, Jordie Barrett, Beauden Barrett, Will Jordan, Cam Roigard and Richie Mo’unga, amongst others, but he reserved special praise for his skipper.

Cane answered his critics in 2020 by winning the Kel Tremain Memorial Trophy. In 2021, he battled injury. In 2022, he battled injury and the strong form of Dalton Papali’i. In 2023, he played his heart out. Say what you like, but Cane has some guts, some gumption and mental toughness. And he had the last laugh on gobby Ireland No 6 Peter O’Mahony.

“I think he’s a great captain, a great player, he’s such a strong defender and a very pragmatic leader. He doesn’t like to say a bucketload but likes to lead from the front. He had a group that believed in him. I would have been incredibly proud to see him up the front with a gold medal around his neck.”

So where do you place Foster’s tenure? It’s no straightforward question because his win percentage is 69.6, which is low. It’s just below Wayne Smith, about whom no one has a bad word to say. Do you equate him with Laurie Mains (1992-95), who took three years of sometimes muddled selections and inconsistent results to have the team in great form in his final year, only to fall at the last RWC hurdle to the Boks? But even Mains, whose era straddled the amateur eras, did not have to deal with some of the things thrown at Foster.

Foster’s All Blacks had muddled selections, inconsistent results and a game plan that did not always flourish until 2023, and yet there was clear progress despite Covid, Silver Lake (the NZRPA versus the board) and the boss nearly losing his job mid-contract.

“I know I’m not perfect and I know there’s things I could have done differently, but I had a clear direction and was able to get a group that by the end of 2023 was absolutely humming and got within a whisker of winning the World Cup.”

Fine margins again, fine margins.

Fozzie’s 2020-23 tenure deserves a pass mark – not just a ‘scrape through with 50 per cent’ pass mark, but a decent, solid B. Not B for brilliant but B for better than he’ll be given credit for.


As head coach (2020-23)
46 Tests, 32 wins, 12 losses, 2 draws (69.6 win percentage)
*Bledisloe Cup victors 2020-23
*Rugby Championship victors 2020-23

As assistant coach (2012-19)
109 Tests, 95 wins, 10 losses, 4 draws (87.2 win percentage)

Totals (2012-23)
155 Tests, 127 wins, 22 losses, 6 draws (82 win percentage)

Drew with Australia 16-16, Wellington (BC)
Beat Australia 27-7, Auckland (BC)
Beat Australia 43-5, Sydney (BC/RC)
Lost to Australia 22-24, Brisbane (BC/RC)
Lost to Argentina 15-25, Sydney (RC)
Beat Argentina 38-0, Newcastle (RC)

Beat Tonga 102-0, Auckland
Beat Fiji 57-23, Dunedin
Beat Fiji 60-13, Hamilton
Beat Australia 33-25, Auckland (BC)
Beat Australia 57-22, Auckland (BC/RC)
Beat Australia 38-21, Perth (BC/RC)
Beat Argentina 39-0, Gold Coast (RC)
Beat Argentina 36-13, Brisbane (RC)
Beat South Africa 19-17, Townsville (RC)
Lost to South Africa 29-31, Gold Coast (RC)
Beat USA 104-14, Washington
Beat Wales 54-16, Cardiff
Beat Italy 47-9, Rome
Lost to Ireland 20-29, Dublin
Lost to France 25-40, Paris

Beat Ireland 42-19, Auckland
Lost to Ireland 12-23, Dunedin
Lost to Ireland 22-32, Wellington
Lost to South Africa 10-26, Nelspruit (RC)
Beat South Africa 35-23, Johannesburg (RC)
Lost to Argentina 18-25, Christchurch (RC)
Beat Argentina 53-3, Hamilton (RC)
Beat Australia 39-37, Melbourne (BC/RC)
Beat Australia 40-14, Auckland (BC/RC)
Beat Japan 38-31, Tokyo
Beat Wales 55-23, Cardiff
Beat Scotland 31-23, Edinburgh
Drew with England 25-25, London

Beat Argentina 41-12, Mendoza (RC)
Beat South Africa 35-20, Auckland (RC)
Beat Australia 38-7, Melbourne (BC/RC)
Beat Australia 23-20, Dunedin (BC)
Lost to South Africa 7-35, London
Lost to France 13-27, Paris (RWC)
Beat Namibia 71-3, Toulouse (RWC)
Beat Italy 96-17, Lyon (RWC)
Beat Uruguay 73-0, Lyon (RWC)
Beat Ireland 28-24, Paris (RWC QF)
Beat Argentina 44-6 (RWC SF)
Lost to South Africa 11-12 (RWC F)

All Blacks 57-22 Australia (2021)
All Blacks 53-3 Argentina (2022)
All Blacks 35-20 South Africa (2023)
All Blacks 96-17 Italy (RWC 2023)
All Blacks 28-24 Ireland (RWC 2023)

Argentina 25-15 All Blacks (2020)
France 40-25 All Blacks (2021)
Ireland 32-22 All Blacks (2022)
Argentina 25-18 All Blacks (2022)
South Africa 35-7 All Blacks (2023)

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