By Liam Napier in Paris
To understand Ian Foster’s deep connection with the All Blacks that’s been forged over 12 years within the coaching team alongside his fractured relationship with the New Zealand rugby public and, indeed, his employers, we must start at the beginning of his elevation to the coveted throne.
Passionate, caring, loyal and stubborn, Foster leaves a complicated legacy as he heads home to free agent status.
Unpacking Foster’s four-year tenure and a World Cup cycle like no other is a complex, nuanced exercise.
A term that concludes by exceeding all expectations in France yet falls agonisingly short of the ultimate redemption can be split into two distinct periods – before and after last year’s home series defeat to Ireland.
Foster was never welcomed, never loved, from the outset of his All Blacks tenure.
“Everyone in the country has a different filter of how they view you,” an emotional Foster said as he reflected on a personally taxing ride in his final press conference as All Blacks head coach one day after the World Cup final defeat to the Springboks. “They’ve got a filter where they didn’t want you in the first place so they filter everything you do based on that. And that’s okay.”
The All Blacks head coaching role comes with unparalleled demands and pressure but for Foster, there was no honeymoon.
There are multiple layers to that backdrop of discontent.
Promoted from his eight years as assistant to Steve Hansen, Foster was cast as a vote for conservative continuity.
The mood for change, following the 2019 World Cup semifinal defeat in Japan, was firmly behind Crusaders, and now All Blacks elect coach, Scott Robertson.
Foster was the other man.
As a head coach, Foster carried the stigma of his eight years at the Chiefs that featured one Super Rugby final and a 50 per cent win record through 106 games.
And while the 2019 World Cup defeat evoked frustrations, Foster assumed the reins after a largely golden generation in which the All Blacks won 93 of their 108 tests for an 86 per cent win ratio – a period that included the 2015 World Cup success.
For anyone, that’s a tough act to follow.
Covid imposed challenges – everything from isolation to constant disruption.
Foster’s first year at the helm contained just six tests – three wins, one draw in his opening assignment against Dave Rennie’s Wallabies in Wellington and, in a sign of lows to come, the All Blacks’ maiden loss to the Pumas.
Those results fuelled the pro-Robertson brigade.
On paper at least the 2021 campaign offered positivity until the end of the year. Foster’s All Blacks won 12 of their 15 tests – the highlight of their centenary victory against the Springboks in Townsville. Five of those wins, though, were against Tonga, Fiji, the USA and Italy.
After a draining tour which, due to Covid complications, forced the team to spend three months on the road, away from families, largely confined to hotels, the All Blacks suffered successive defeats in the Northern Hemisphere to Ireland and France, two leading European nations, for the first time in 27 years to spark major fears.
Those fears were revealed in full as the All Blacks, between November 2021 and August 2022, collapsed to six losses from eight tests. Widespread criticism and concerns at that point were fully justified.
Last year’s home series defeat to Ireland proved the definitive catalyst for change, with assistant coaches John Plumtree and Brad Mooar axed. Those changes should have arrived well before then, though, after player-led reviews detailed coaching inadequacies at the end of 2021.
Loyal to a fault, Foster hoped to improve Plumtree and Mooar’s capabilities.
In fairness, at the start of his tenure, Foster is believed to have sounded out Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown to join his coaching team – only for the pair to politely decline.
In the end, he needed two-and-a-half years to discover his remoulded coaching crew.
From a playing perspective, Foster’s stubbornness was evident in several selection debates such as delaying Jordie Barrett’s transformational shift from fullback to the midfield – and Finlay Christie’s retention as reserve halfback.
In the most seismic shift of Foster’s tenure, Jason Ryan’s elevation as forwards coach dramatically altered the complexion of the All Blacks pack to improve their maul defence and the set piece almost overnight.
When the All Blacks summoned their backs-to-the-wall triumph at Ellis Park, senior players voiced their vocal support and Joe Schmidt agreed to accept a fulltime hands-on assistant position, Foster was effectively granted a second chance - albeit with the rug to be eventually pulled before the World Cup finish line.
While the All Blacks traversed another wild ride to finish last year with eight wins, four losses, including the first home defeat to the Pumas, and a deflating draw against Eddie Jones’ spiralling England team at Twickenham, the signs of genuine improvement were evident following Ryan and Schmidt’s integrations.
World Cup year began with New Zealand Rugby determining it would appoint a new head coach prior to the pinnacle event for the first time in history. Foster repeatedly criticised his employer for that decision, saying it undermined his team’s World Cup preparations.
“I disagreed with how this year went. I said that publicly. I disagreed with some decisions New Zealand Rugby made on the basis of what I felt was the best thing for this team. It wasn’t based on my desire to coach beyond this World Cup,” Foster said. “And I stand by that.”
With the Robertson writing on the wall Foster opted not to reapply – and in a mark of his integrity and commitment to the team refused to engage with any future coaching opportunities, national or domestic, before now. After taking time out to mow the lawns and decompress he will coach on. Possibly against the All Blacks, too.
Unlike the ugly and utterly embarrassing Eddie Jones saga engulfing Rugby Australia, Foster decided he did not want his players reading of any future intentions or engaging in any further distractions.
Despite the off-field clashes with New Zealand Rugby hierarchy, renewed hope bloomed as the All Blacks swept all before them to start World Cup year. The Pumas in Mendoza, the Wallabies in Melbourne and the Springboks at Mt Smart Stadium were all cast aside in compelling fashion. Finally, the blueprint of a reliable forward platform, quick ruck ball and attacking variation was there. Finally, the All Blacks had grasped elusive consistency.
That trust rapidly eroded, though, with successive defeats upon arrival in Europe. First with the record defeat to the Springboks at Twickenham. Then the first World Cup pool defeat in history to France in Paris.
Written off once again, just as they were last year following the home series defeat to Ireland, Foster galvanised the All Blacks through a familiar siege mentality.
While playing weak opposition through the remainder of the pool stages, a pivotal week-long camp in Bordeaux allowed the All Blacks to rehabilitate influential injured players – Jordie Barrett, Sam Cane, Shannon Frizell and Tyrel Lomax – and target specific improvements at the breakdown.
That week paved the way for the best performance of the Foster era as the All Blacks exacted revenge over Ireland, the world No 1, to end their 17-match unbeaten run in their epic quarter-final. Such an effort, such defensive resolve to withstand 37 phases at the death, speaks to the united nature of the team.
Outside of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup, this was the All Blacks’ best World Cup knockout performance. You don’t produce that without a strong culture, deep-seated belief, and collective coaching nous.
The All Blacks breezed past the Pumas in the semifinal but couldn’t reach the heights of their quarter-final effort on the ultimate stage against the Springboks.
Setting aside the card controversy and officiating frustrations, the All Blacks had ample opportunity, ample dominance, to overcome Cane’s dismissal and claim a courageous triumph.
For all the pride in their response to that adversity, those missed chances will haunt them.
Foster’s cold, raw numbers underline his conflicting legacy. He finishes with 32 wins, 12 losses, and two draws for a 69.5 per cent win record that ranks him 18th among All Blacks coaches who led four tests or more.
In that time Foster’s All Blacks claimed three Rugby Championships, One Tri Nations, retained the Bledisloe Cup throughout, and walked away with a World Cup silver medal after a one-point defeat in the final.
Oh, the crushing fine margins of elite sport.
Foster significantly elevated his status and altered perceptions with the New Zealand rugby public by leading the All Blacks to a World Cup final. Few, if anyone, predicted he would reach that stage last year.
A World Cup win would have redefined Foster’s legacy and likely set him on course to be knighted alongside Sir Brian Lochore, Sir Graham Henry and Sir Steve Hansen.
So near, so far, Foster could now be viewed as the nearly man.
The crux of Foster’s complicated tenure is the seemingly great divide between his internal and external standing.
And so, his enduring legacy depends on who you talk to.
“I know everyone has their own interpretations of the last four years,” Foster said. “I’ve read stuff written in here from different perspectives.
“My role as an All Blacks head coach is to do the best I can and give everything to the job with the group I’ve been given in the circumstances.
“I’m going to go to bed with a smile on my face and a sense of satisfaction but a bit of a hole of not achieving the final goal. I’ll leave the rest to others.
“What I’ve learned in the last four years is how I want to be remembered doesn’t really matter because everyone else is going to write their views and it’s hard to compete with that. I’m not sulking saying that. That’s the truth.
“People have their own filters of how they view All Blacks coaches but I’m proud of this group. If I get remembered from within the group as someone who cared and united this group then I’ll take that.”
While Foster’s time ends in devastation and deflation the All Blacks head coach few wanted and resisted supporting proved many of us wrong - even though the ultimate vindication remains beyond reach.
Moving on should bring Foster peace but his love for the All Blacks will long linger.
“Internally we see our role to be the best we can be. We feel if we do that we can put a smile on peoples’ faces amidst all the other stuff that goes on in life. It’s hard you feel like you haven’t quite done what we wanted to do but the flipside of it is hopefully people will see that playing for this jersey mattered to this group and we did everything we could. On the day we were beaten by a team that did a bit more than us.
“I’m going to miss walking up the stairs to the coaching box before a test. There’s something about taking your seat and watching the All Blacks play. Believe it or not, I love that. I keep reminding myself it’s a privileged position to be in. After that, it’s the people. It’s seeing young men grow, young men having to deal with the same pressure I get put under and learning how to help people grow through that. Those will be the things I 100 per cent miss the most.”
Liam Napier has been a sports journalist since 2010, and his work has taken him to World Cups in rugby, netball and cricket, boxing world title fights and Commonwealth Games.