It is time for the annual pilgrimage to begin – time for the three wise men to follow their gleaming star all the way to Bethlehem.
Editor’s note: Since publishing this article, Ian Foster has officially been announced as All Blacks coach.
In New Zealand rugby, the road forward is not so clearly illuminated. The last of the three Magi who have held sway in Kiwi rugby for the last 16 years has left.
Steve Hansen is no longer head coach of the All Blacks and there is no obvious successor on the horizon.
Between them, Sir Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen led their country on a run of unprecedented success from late 2003 to the present day.
During that period, New Zealand won World Cups in 2011 and 2015, dominated the Rugby Championship and Tri-Nations tournament on 11 of 16 occasions, while winning and drawing Test series against the cream of the northern hemisphere crop, the British and Irish Lions, in 2005 and 2017.
Between them, ‘Ted’, ‘Smithy’ and ‘Shag’ won 181 of 210 matches at a stupendous success rate of over 86 per cent. It is an achievement that will probably never be duplicated, and it established a dynasty.
When Henry left Wales under a cloud back in 2002, he had already ensured the assistant coach he had recently recruited from the Canterbury Crusaders would succeed him as the coach of the national team.
When he retired as the most successful international coach of the professional era, after the 2011 World Cup, the process was similar in New Zealand. There was only one man for the job, and that was Hansen.
Dynasties tend to offer stability and continuity to governance in all areas of life. There is a perception that systems, and therefore outcomes, will remain the same because the new man or woman in charge represents a ‘safe pair of hands’ who believes implicitly in what has gone before.
At a certain moment, however, all dynasties reach the end of their time. In 17th century England, the Stuarts were overthrown by the first stirrings of parliamentary democracy, and the force of change was even more radical in 19th century Bourbon France, and the 20th century Russia of the Romanovs.
The problem is that dynasties seldom recognise the end of the natural cycle by themselves, and that is why progress has to occur via revolution, not evolution. The hand has to be forced open because power will not be voluntarily given.
It looks as if New Zealand rugby has reached the same historic fork in the road now, in the appointment of the next All Blacks coach. The man with the dynastic claim is Ian Foster, who has been a part of Steve Hansen’s coaching group since 2012.
All the cards appear to be falling in ‘Fozzie’s’ favour. Most of the main contenders from outside the fold have fallen by the wayside; Warren Gatland has committed to the Chiefs, Dave Rennie to Australia, Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown to the Brave Blossoms. Ireland’s Joe Schmidt wants an indefinite break from rugby, so that leaves only one outstanding young coach, the Crusaders’ Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson, as the competition.
Meanwhile, Foster looks to have assembled an impressive coaching team around him, with (potentially) Schmidt, John Plumtree and existing defence coach Scott McLeod all mentioned in dispatches.
The inclusion of Sir Graham Henry on the five-strong selection panel is also seen as an argument in his favour, not least by ex-NZRFU and WRU chief executive David Moffett.
“I now believe it’s a race in one. Foster would have to stuff it up mightily not to get the job. I just don’t think they’ll give it to Razor, even though he’s got far and away a superior record as a head coach.
“The thing that troubles me about the whole thing is there seems to have been a view proffered by Henry, then Hansen, that it’s their job to create a dynasty, and whoever the assistant coach is will automatically become the coach. As we know with dynasties, at some point they don’t work.
“I’m not suggesting that Foster is not a good coach. I just don’t know if he’s a head coach and in that regard who he takes with him is going to be terribly important,” he said.
This view of Henry’s unqualified support for Foster is open to question. He may well have other ideas. Foster did not win a Super Rugby championship during his seven years as head coach of the Chiefs, while Robertson’s Crusaders have won three successive titles.
At the same time, Wayne Smith has warned against the possibility of concentrating too much coaching IP within the All Blacks coaching group: “One of the issues facing New Zealand Rugby will be not to destroy Super Rugby by all the coaches going to the All Blacks environment.”
At the World Cup, the jury was out on Foster as an attack coach. After finally getting to grips with an Andy Farrell-coached defence in the All Blacks’ spectacular seven-try demolition of Ireland in the quarter-final, the Kiwi attack stuttered against England the week after, scoring only one try from a misfiring English lineout close to the line.
The writing was on the wall offensively quite early on in the game.
These two screenshots were snapped immediately after the All Blacks had won a turnover. In both cases, the lack of both width and depth of attacking alignment is underwhelming. In the first example, there are only about 13 metres of depth while in the second, there are about three metres less.
In both cases, England have the width of the field comfortably covered on defence.
Why is width and depth important? Especially in the era of high line-speed defences, you have to use attacking alignment to pull defences out of shape, by pulling them either further upfield, or further laterally than they want to go.
That gives you more of a chance to create a hole, or a lack of connection between defenders, as I pointed out in a recent article on Dave Rennie’s Glasgow.
In both instances, the All Blacks gave the ball back immediately, with Angus Ta’avao being stripped of the ball by George Ford in the first example, and Manu Tuilagi intercepting a Beauden Barrett pass in the second. Both were accidents waiting to happen.
Matters did not improve in set-piece attack. Both of the following snapshots occurred on the fourth phase after a lineout.
Pre-planned attack generally runs out after four phases, and this is where the attack will have counted on gaining some concrete advantage. The screenshots show the All Blacks have gained no advantage where they typically expect to find it, on the edges of the defence. England have everyone on their feet, and are covering the width of the park in both cases.
One particular passage of play late in the first half brought the issues with the New Zealand attack sharply into focus. The attack begins after a lineout turnover won by captain Kieran Read.
This is the type of situation where New Zealand expect to thrive against a relatively disorganised defence, and the second phase out to the far sideline brings with it some promising signs of progress.
The hands through Jack Goodhue and Richie Mo’unga out to the right are smooth and Beauden Barrett is able to take play well over halfway. This is where you might expect New Zealand to be able to land a knockout blow.
Instead, further momentum is inhibited rather than accelerated as the ball comes back to the left, and the move begins to stall.
The pattern is one the All Blacks had used with success against Ireland, with two forwards offering themselves as decoys off Aaron Smith and the ball passed behind them to a three-man pod of forwards.
Against England, the built-in negatives began to emerge far more clearly. The two decoys (no.3 Nepo Laulala and no.5 Sam Whitelock) are never viable receiving outlets for Smith and, as a result, they do not check the defensive rush.
As Smith commented after the game, “Those two forwards are the players you generally rely on to keep the ball alive in the tackle. They would take the offload or make the cleanout to give you the lightning-quick ball you are after.
“But because they were ten metres ahead of the attack, they were late arriving to all those breakdowns. It gave us slow ball and didn’t really give us a chance to keep the ball alive. It probably was the reason we lost so convincingly.”
When the ball arrives in Brodie Retallick’s hands, the England defensive triangle is in perfect shape, with their most damaging tackler (Sam Underhill) primed at its point and ready for action.
New Zealand repeated this shape half a dozen times while chasing the game in the second period, without achieving anything but negative outcomes.
This phase marks a decisive shift in momentum in the sequence as a whole.
As the snapshot at the start of the next play illustrates, the Kiwi attack has lost its key alignment weapons – both width and depth.
After this, the writing is on the wall and there is only one way the sequence can end, despite a typically robust ‘save’ by Ardie Savea on the next phase.
Savea’s strength in contact gets him through another ideal England defensive triangle, this time with Underhill’s mate Tom Curry at the tip.
Although Ardie is able to win his individual battle with Curry, he does not have the time to win the war – to get the ball through his hands and out through Goodhue to the unmarked Sevu Reece on the right.
On the next phase that space has been blocked out by Tuilagi, and Mo’unga is forced back into the clutches of Underhill. Game, set and match to England.
How New Zealand must be wishing there was a fourth wise man at this momentous time of the year! All things being equal, I would guess that either Warren Gatland or Dave Rennie would have been the wisest challengers to Ian Foster for the job of new All Blacks coach.
Gatland has had global experience in the role of head coach to match that of Henry or Hansen (more than 100 Tests) and he has enjoyed considerable success as coach of both Wales and the Lions.
Dave Rennie is in Sir Graham Henry’s own words “one of the best all-round coaches we have seen in the last ten years – the way he is able to connect with the players is fantastic”.
But things are not equal, and both Gatland and Rennie have disappeared from the race due to prior commitments. That leaves Scott Robertson and Ian Foster contesting the top job, with Foster the firm favourite to be appointed by New Zealand Rugby.
There have to be serious questions raised about such a dynastic choice, however. Dynasties have never been self-reflective, and the All Blacks badly need an injection of fresh, new ideas.
Those ideas were not much in evidence on the attack in the World Cup semi-final against England. Ian Foster will provide continuity, but he may not be the answer to all of New Zealand’s prayers this Christmas.