The 2020 All Blacks season started slowly with a draw. Two extraordinary games, including a trashing of the Wallabies, had to sit up and take notice, but recent losses to the Wallabies and Argentina have had us think again.
So far this year they’ve played five games, won twice, lost twice and drawn once.
Their win rate is 40 per cent, the lowest of any All Blacks side. Steve Hansen’s win rate was often above 85 per cent, it’s just that he chose the wrong games to lose.
This is what a good coach does: he comes out with a game plan and picks players who suit it.
But here’s what Ian Foster does: he picks the objectively most brilliant players and then he shuffles around and comes up with a predictable game plan.
Why Foster looked like he had an excellent game plan at the start was because in the two games he’s so far won the Wallabies were not defending well and allowed the All Blacks to play their natural game.
On the other hand, Argentina’s defence on Saturday was rock solid. They were choke tackling, mauling the progress and halting the recycling of quick ball. This style shows up a game plan for what it really is abd how you handle static occasions.
The All Blacks often attack off rucks on static plays with a standard predictable move.
They play a Z sequence of passing. A pass to a three-man screen pod and slide out the back to a distributor from the backline, who then passes to a carrying option.
The All Blacks tried this repeatedly against Argentina. It was often countered, with the Pumas recognising the play some time into the game and constantly shooting in to kill it.
Before the glorious Argentineans did, the most gain-line success the All Blacks had were a couple of inches.
Their static play attack is a gradual retreat as they get hit backwards and backwards each phase.
I did not see a major strike play come off, even on the openside. When they did try, the play was often killed or they erroneously dropped the ball.
They lost the ball with silly, rudimentary errors. Their game plan was just one of constant retreat.
The problem is that Foster is, as one commenter so intelligently pointed out, a ‘card player’. He has a hand of great players and thus does not invent a proper game plan other than retreating in attack. Instead he just throws the players onto the pitch and lets them do what they do best.
He has been picking players based on general footballing ability – because he might as well given he does not have a proper game plan formed.
Some players are brilliant and should not be dropped – they’re not the problem, rather the poor victims of it. Aaron Smith, Richie Mo’unga, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett and some others. Mo’unga did not have a great game, but he made errors in the few opportunities he had to influence the game and his overall impact was limited by the Foster static attack Z sequence strategy.
Look at their midfield. Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown are great players, but should they really opt for them? They are predictable – they either crash the ball up or pass. This is why the 12 and 13 channels had the Pumas shooting in and killing the game without a hint of hesitation.
There’s also another problem: their backfield coverage.
When the opposition have the ball they have a lack of ideas as to how to defend. Consider the first try for the Pumas – on the surface it just looks like creative brilliance from Nicolas Sanchez and a lucky bounce, but there is a shade more to it.
We saw Jordie Barrett out towards the touchline, leaving the centre unguarded. Mo’unga was positioned inwards as a central defensive fullback while Smith was behind the line slightly.
All three players dashed back to cover, but a lucky bounce and a second grubber from Rodrigo Bruni got the ball to the line, where Nicolas Sanchez dived on it to secure a try over the line.
Under Foster the All Blacks have become predictable in attack because they are picking players and then throwing in a game plan that fits them, essentially putting the cart before the horse. Their defensive positioning and backfield coverage has also simply been poor.
This loss to the Pumas unearths a lot of problems under Ian Foster.
Could Ian Foster end up like the disgraced Allister Coetzee, leaving his team after his tenure left them worse off?