PARIS – Fifteen months after being an inch away from getting sacked, Ian Foster has led New Zealand to another World Cup final as the All Blacks smashed Michael Cheika’s Argentina Pumas 44-6 at the Stade de France.
Should he lead the All Blacks to their fourth Webb Ellis Cup, he’ll go down in folklore. Then he’ll be shown the door as Scott Robertson is ushered in as their new head coach.
That’s a thought few thought likely when his side travelled to Ellis Park last year needing to beat the Springboks to keep his job.
Of course, the All Blacks did defeat the Springboks – and they’ve not looked back.
Now, they’re 80 minutes away from World Cup glory as they wait to meet the winner of Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks and Steve Borthwick’s England on Saturday (Sunday, 6am AEDT).
“It’s everything. It’s the goal. We came here wanting to be in the final and then we obviously want to go and win it. We have given ourselves that opportunity,” Foster said.
“I am incredibly proud of the way we backed it up tonight (after their gripping 28-24 win over Ireland in the quarter-final). I thought it was a tough game. We got asked a lot of questions from Argentina early. We held great composure and finished strong, so I am pretty pleased.”
Save for a huge upset in 24 hours’ time, it will be the first time the All Blacks have met the Springboks in a World Cup final since 1995.
After the flatness of the first semi-final, World Rugby will surely want that match-up between the two titans, with the respective southern hemisphere superpowers bidding to become the first nation to claim four Webb Ellis Cups.
A week ago Paris was abuzz with two mouthwatering quarter-finals that played their part in the greatest weekend of knockout rugby.
But the premature exits of Ireland and France was a shattering blow for the tournament and the country. Now, Paris is being put to sleep by Six60’s Don’t Forget your Roots instead of the packed house that belted out Zombie for weeks on end across France during Ireland’s winning run.
So comfortable was the victory that the All Blacks, pushed all the way against Ireland a week earlier, managed to finish the game with 14 men on the field, as Foster gave the yellow-carded Scott Barrett an extended spell by not bringing him back in the final five minutes of the Test.
The dreary conditions in Paris also played a part in the flat feeling.
The All Blacks might have conceded the first points of the evening as Emiliano Boffelli knocked over three points, but their lead didn’t last long as Will Jordan cut Argentina to pieces by completing a famous hat-trick.
His first try was a simple one as he finished off a simple try in the end after a sublime Richie Mo’unga cut out pass.
But his final try was a thing of beauty as he broke free and then chipped ahead to score his eighth of the tournament – a competition high.
With the line open out wide Mo’unga denied Jordan a fourth try in the final seconds, as he went himself but came away with nothing.
It need not have mattered for the All Blacks smashed Argentina in every facet of the Test comfortably.
Argentina had plenty of possession in the opening half – twice they had more than 10 phases in New Zealand’s attacking zone – but only had two penalties to show from it.
In stark contrast the All Blacks were lethal in possession and cut David Kidwell’s defence to shreds.
Case in point was in the 15th minute as Mark Telea managed to steal the ball at the ruck near their own 22 metre line after defending for 12 phases and the All Blacks turned defence into attack, with Mo’unga freeing up Rieko Ioane before the classy fly-half backed up on the inside and was tackled 30 metres out from Los Pumas’ line. Nine phases later and the All Blacks scored through Jordie Barrett out wide. It was rugby perfection.
Trailing 15-6 on the stroke of half-time, the All Blacks delivered the hammer blow.
Cheika had walked down the steps and stood next to the bench hoping to be able to get every extra second to rally his troops in the dressing sheds. It also allowed him to likely raise some concerns with the fourth official, as Australian Angus Gardner came down hard on Argentina at the breakdown.
But he was forced to look on as his set-piece broke down again, allowing the All Blacks to kick for the corner and go in search of more points.
Seconds later, Telea, as he has done all year, slipped through some weak defence and got the All Blacks on the front foot. Then Mo’unga fired the ball across to Shannon Frizell, who strolled over to score a simple try.
Even before the flanker had scored, Cheika had already turned away and trudged into the sheds a frustrated figure.
Needing a strong start to the second half to stand any chance of staging a comeback, Argentina mucked up the kick restart and then were blown away at the scrum.
It allowed Aaron Smith to show off his underrated running game, as he cut off his left foot and left his opposite Gonzalo Bertranou snatching at nothing but air. Meanwhile, the cunning All Blacks halfback was on his way to the tryline.
At 27-6 after 42 minutes, the match was over. Any hope of a South American side winning a maiden World Cup all but over.
There were seven tries in total, with Frizell grabbing a second shortly after, before Jordan scored the final two to seal his hat-trick.
“It’s so sweet,” player of the match Jordie Barrett said.
“It’s new territory for this group. We slipped at the semi-final hurdle four years ago. I am just so proud of this group. It’s not done yet. We will have a very tough match regardless of who we have next week. It’s another week, which we are so grateful for.”
Cheika, meanwhile, summed up Argentina’s glum feeling.
“Yeah, incredibly disappointing for us,” he said.
“The effort was huge. They put everything out there and I think it was just in the details of the game, you know the small details on transition in scrums, the last couple of minutes before half-time, the first couple of minutes after half-time – they are the little nuances that we don’t have as yet in our game.
“But we’ve certainly got a lot to be proud of. I know the score was hard but their effort today, their defence and their work around the field [was outstanding]. [We] just didn’t have the class to match New Zealand.”
As for the officiating, Cheika opted to keep his power dry despite clearly being left frustrated by Gardner’s performance.
“I wasn’t very happy with the refereeing in the first-half, especially in the rucks,” Cheika said. “I think it’s his way of doing things. Every time we were in their 22, we encountered the same problem.
“In over 20 years, I’ve realised whether I like it or not, I can’t change it.”