From the lows of last year’s series defeat to Ireland, through a fiery battle in Johannesburg and a thumping at Twickenham, before entering the heat of France, the All Blacks’ recovery over the past year took them to within reach of the sport’s biggest prize. Along the way, there were filthy kitchens, unhelpful hosts and faulty air-conditioning in unbearable temperatures. Gregor Paul follows the journey.
There’s an old-world fustiness about the Lensbury Resort in Teddington, a sort of tired, threadbare look that hints at stateliness but really says it needs a massive refit and renovation.
It has become a home-away-from-home for the All Blacks, their chosen residence whenever they play in London, not because it’s grand or homely, but because it was built in the 1920s by petrol giant Shell as a sports and social club for its employees and therefore they can fall out of bed on to the training ground and not deal with the carnage of the M25.
The floorboards creak on the stairs leading to coach Ian Foster’s suite and the level of chintz inside it is almost shocking – knock-off landscapes by Constable on the walls, gauche ornaments and a fireplace that wants to dominate the room but doesn’t have the size or finish to get anywhere close.
Besides, it can’t compete with the big screen that Foster has hooked up to his laptop to review the key plays from the horror show the night before, in which his All Blacks team fell to a record 35-7 defeat to the Springboks a few miles down the road at Twickenham.
He’s all matter-of-fact as he scoots through the tape – half commentating, half-analysing, but it’s certainly informative and, for him, possibly cathartic.
Ethan de Groot is penalised at the first scrum, and the Boks kick into the corner.
There is then a penalty against the All Blacks for pulling down the driving maul, but this could – should – have been a penalty against South Africa for jumping across the lineout.
The point he’s making is that it is little moments that become big moments if they go against you and if they are allowed to compound.
A penalty to New Zealand would have enabled them to exit to halfway and have the lineout throw, but instead they got their timing wrong at the next lineout and started their maul defence while the Boks’ jumper was still in the air.
Next lineout, they do the same thing and it’s another penalty, another driving maul – another passage in which the All Blacks barely cling on.
There’s a scrum after 10 minutes and the All Blacks are penalised again and find themselves defending yet another driving maul. Scott Barrett is yellow-carded for illegally coming through a ruck and it’s another kick to the corner, another driving maul, another penalty and another yellow card, this time to Sam Cane.
After 15 minutes the All Blacks have barely been out their own 22 and have conceded six penalties, picked up two yellow cards and in doing so have given referee Mathew Carley everything he needed to see to determine that South Africa were physically superior.
There was ample concern back in New Zealand about such a shambolic performance. A few weeks earlier the All Blacks had comfortably beaten the Springboks in the Rugby Championship, but had South Africa been bluffing?
Most of the Boks team that night hadn’t played a test in 2023 and the big worry was that the All Blacks had maybe been duped into thinking they were tracking better than they were.
But despite the score at Twickenham, and the opening-quarter meltdown, the head coach’s demeanour was relaxed.
The lesson, said Foster, was that his team needed to get smarter at managing and understanding referees because the pedantic Carley had given them a massive clue as to how things would be officiated at the World Cup.
Referees were going to make their minds up early in each game about who was the dominant team and they were going to referee accordingly thereafter.
Foster, again, adopted a neutral tone to say that the All Blacks absolutely couldn’t start again the way they did at Twickenham, but he wasn’t spooked by what he saw.
The defeat would have done more good than harm, he thinks. It was a sobering lesson for the players about what the World Cup would be all about – big scrums, driving mauls, a need to be impeccably disciplined and to be wary that TMOs were going to be poking their noses into just about every play.
He’d have liked to have seen a more disciplined and polished performance, but the real object of the exercise was to get his top team back on track after a five-week layoff.
The Boks had given him and his coaching staff a long list of things to work on, but nothing unexpected – nothing they weren’t planning to focus on during their training camp in Germany.
Joe Schmidt popped his head around Foster’s door to ask if he was coming to the catch-up with the medical staff and the two of them headed off.
As they made their way to the casualty ward, Foster’s words from the night before came to mind. “We got squeezed and exposed. But if we could choose one trophy not to have in our cabinet at the end of this year, it would be this one,” he had said at the post-match press conference.
“Maybe this result will take a lot of heat off us. No one will rate us now.”
He was so calm, so unmoved by the defeat at Twickenham and so content to let everyone else doubt the All Blacks that it was obvious he and his coaching team were working to a deeply considered plan to be playing their best rugby in the last three weeks of the World Cup.
There are two other factors that go some way to explaining why there was no state of panic within the All Blacks the morning after they had been so ruthlessly despatched by the Boks at Twickenham.
This was a team that had been through a depth of adversity and they had built an unbreakable bond of faith in one another and unwavering trust in their coaching staff.
In mid-2022, they experienced the sort of pressure few All Blacks teams have known when they lost a home series to Ireland.
In the aftermath, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson and head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum visited Foster at his home.
They wanted him to fire his assistant coaches John Plumtree and Brad Mooar and they also made their expectations clear that they felt he should resign if performances and results didn’t improve in the next assignment – a two-test series in South Africa.
Foster was equally clear that, if they wanted him out, they would have to fire him – which he was fully expecting to happen a week later after the All Blacks lost 26-10 to the Springboks in Mbombela.
Foster knew, as he paced around the Sandton Sun and Towers Hotel in Johannesburg, his phone glued to his ear ahead of the second test at Ellis Park, that his employer was sounding out Scott Robertson about replacing him.
He knew that NZR had also asked Schmidt, his technical analyst, to meet Robertson to discuss being part of his possible coaching team and it is believed he even knew what financial settlement he would be offered should he be ousted.
With this hanging over his head, and his senior players aware of what was going on, the All Blacks produced their best performance of Foster’s tenure to win 35-23.
As the All Blacks’ team bus made its way out of the badlands that surround Ellis Park, a handful of senior players including Aaron Smith, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea made the decision to confront Robinson once they got back to their hotel and at least state the case as to why they felt it would be a mistake to sack Foster.
“People were out for our throats and they were out for our coach’s head,” Smith would later recall.
“It was brutal. When Robbo saw us all walk in, he said ‘Do you want a beer or a wine?’ It was after a game. But we were, ‘Nuh’ – we were there for business.
“A fair bit went down between the game and flying home.”
Foster, who had found himself shedding a few tears after the Ellis Park win and wondering whether it would save his job, was told on the Wednesday after he returned to New Zealand that it had.
The victory, the player testimony and Schmidt’s rejection of Robertson and subsequent agreement to increase his involvement and take on the role of attack coach, led to NZR chair Stewart Mitchell telling the media: “[The board] have unanimously agreed they have absolute confidence that Ian and this coaching group are the right people to lead the All Blacks through to the World Cup.
“This has been privately and publicly validated by our players and in various conversations within our high-performance team.”
This was an All Blacks team that knew how to stay united in defeat and retain their faith when things didn’t go their way and the public and media were climbing into them.
But the other reason the Twickenham loss hadn’t induced panic was that the All Blacks weren’t buying into the wider conviction that their opening game at the World Cup against France was going to be defining.
Win it or lose it, their destiny would remain the same – a quarter-final against South Africa or Ireland – and, as Foster explained at the Lensbury, the All Blacks’ only goal was to make the last eight.
His point was that the All Blacks were working towards a mid-October peak, whereas the Boks were facing Scotland in their opening game before having to play Tonga and Ireland.
The difference in their preparation timelines was undoubtedly a factor in the Twickenham game going the way it did.
Foster was confident that, after a training camp in Germany and a week in Lyon, the All Blacks would be a different team when they played the opening game in Paris on September 9.
Gilbert Enoka is trying in vain to find someone on the TGV (France’s intercity high-speed rail service) who could turn on the air-conditioning.
The All Blacks mental skills coach had no joy, though, and with the temperature in the mid-30s the All Blacks were sweltering as they made their way from Lyon to Paris two days before the opening game.
They are not as hot, however, as the legion of police, military and private security guards who are guarding them.
With the Olympics being held in Paris next year, the city appeared to permanently be on a heightened security alert.
The All Blacks had boarded the train at Lyon Perrache so that, when they arrived at the city’s main station Part Dieu five minutes later, they were safely on board, with soldiers armed to the teeth preventing anyone trying to access their coach.
On the train, they have plain-clothed French police, who are restless and fidgety, assigned to look after them for the duration of the tournament,
The French government wanted teams to feel safe during the tournament, but the French organisers clearly didn’t want teams to feel comfortable.
The All Blacks arrived at Gare de Lyon uncomfortably hot, a situation that was to become significantly worse after they negotiated a 90-minute trip to their Novotel in the southeastern outer suburb of Creteil.
It turns out to be a dog of a hotel, proclaiming itself four-star accommodation but with no one sure whether it even deserves three.
There are no function rooms for meetings, the air-conditioning doesn’t work and the kitchen is so filthy that the All Blacks’ chef, Wallace Mua, insists on scrubbing it for three hours before he is willing to cook in it.
This is the second accommodation surprise that has been sprung. At their base in Lyon, the swimming pool they were promised would be finished and functioning when they arrived was a concrete bunker, rubbish floating in the rusty rainwater that had collected.
The lack of air-conditioning was a major problem given the temperature, and All Blacks nutritionist Cat Darry was worried some players would be dehydrated by kickoff.
A bad situation gets worse when a fire alarm goes off at 3am the night before the game.
Half the players have already dragged their mattresses into the hallway where they think it might be cooler, but the only certainty anyone can have is that the French team were not enduring any of this and were sleeping soundly in their air-conditioned, soundproofed rooms across town.
No other team stayed at that hotel after the All Blacks – World Rugby removed it from the Paris rotation, agreeing entirely that it was sub-standard.
It was becoming clear that the French were running a World Cup where there was one rule for them and one for everyone else.
At the stadium on game night, the All Blacks in-house media team are denied access to the pitch-side by security who say it is World Rugby rules – only rights-holding broadcasters are permitted.
As the All Blacks staff are being told this, their French equivalents stroll past security and film whatever they like, wherever they like.
Whether it’s the lack of sleep, the dehydration, the occasion, the non-availability of Tyrel Lomax, Shannon Frizell, Sam Cane and Jordie Barrett or just simply that France are the better team, the All Blacks fell apart after 65 minutes when Will Jordan was yellow-carded.
“I don’t think we have to rebuild,” Foster would say after. “In the past we’ve won all our pool games and not won the tournament. Our goal is to win this tournament.”
He seemed as calm and unshaken as he was after the previous loss because, again, losing to France – while not what the All Blacks wanted – had no detrimental impact on their World Cup dream.
They, like everyone else, had seen how South Africa had lost their opening game in 2019 (to the All Blacks) and gone on to be crowned champions.
What the loss to France meant was that the All Blacks had been presented with a simple scenario – they faced six consecutive games, knowing they had to win them all.
It was a tall order, an impossible mission according to some critics, who had seen how once again how the All Blacks had unravelled after an act of ill discipline.
But the players spoke with a mix of frustration and confidence after the French defeat. “We had enough opportunities to win the game,” said first five Richie Mo’unga.
“There were two or three times in the first half when we weren’t able to score but we were right on the line. The amount of opportunities we created I am very happy with that.
“The way we were able to score after halftime that was something we targeted.
“I am just gutted about our discipline and the way we were able to let France back in the game when we were applying all the pressure.”
Partly frustrated, partly confident – it wasn’t a bad emotional mix for the All Blacks as they returned to Lyon for what would be the most critical four weeks of their World Cup campaign.
It’s the morning of Saturday, October 7, the sun is still beating down in Lyon and Foster is pulling off the dual and contrasting emotions of being entirely at ease with the world and yet fiercely focused on the next eight days.
He’s relaxed because, two nights before, the All Blacks had secured their quarter-final spot by beating Uruguay 73-0.
That victory completed an almost perfect four weeks for the All Blacks, in which they had trained the house down and also hammered Namibia 71-3 and Italy by an astonishing 96-17.
And he’s fiercely focused because he’s almost certain Ireland are going to beat Scotland that night and set up a quarter-final with New Zealand.
He doesn’t say this is the game he and his coaching staff wanted, but he doesn’t have to. That much is obvious.
Ireland exposed the All Blacks in July 2022. They highlighted multiple areas in which the All Blacks were not producing high enough standards and, again, Foster doesn’t make this explicit as such, but it does seem as if the team has been rebuilding towards precisely this moment.
It has been a 15-month journey to work through all the areas in which Ireland showed the All Blacks to be deficient – a journey which at times has been painful and seemingly directionless, but which has also produced definitive signs of what sort of rugby Foster had in mind for the World Cup and how destructive his team could be when they get it right.
Everyone remembers the loss to Argentina in 2022 and the last 10 minutes of the final drawn game that year against England in which a 25-6 lead was squandered.
But the All Blacks produced their true blueprint that year when they put 50 points on Wales in Cardiff and in the first 70 minutes against England.
This was the rugby they wanted to play – a gameplan built on the power of their scrummaging, their speed to the breakdown and accuracy once they got there, their lineout work, both with and without the ball, and their driving maul and driving maul defence.
These were the key areas that were exposed by Ireland and, as Foster would say eight days before the quarter-final, when he was asked if the series defeat had been defining: “Very much so, I reckon.
“I don’t think we got surprised in that series from what we were dealt but we realised that there were a couple of areas where our benchmark wasn’t high enough.
“We realised that we had to make a bit of a step shift in a couple of areas to get what we needed to.
“You can’t give top teams a couple of lineout drive tries against you, for example, and expect to come out and beat them consistently.
“We also learned in that series, quite frankly, you want 15 players on the park. The second test was a shambles with cards and in the third test there was a card that we came right back into that game when they went down to 14 men, and they should have stayed at 14 men for the rest of the game.”
However haphazard at times the past 15 months had seemed, Foster and his coaching team were working to a more calculated and detailed plan than anyone outside of the team ever knew.
A big part of that plan was to use the month between the opening game and the quarter-final to take the key parts of their game to the next level.
The intensity of their training changed in that period. They had a fully fit squad, so the focus went on having full-blooded sessions, and while they were in Bordeaux during their bye week, they had two days of knocking the living daylights out of one another.
As veteran halfback Smith would reveal after the second session: “We had a few guys pretending to be the jacklers today.
“There’s a fair bit of competitiveness and fire in the squad for every position which is really good.
“There’s genuine chip in the changing room around who got who, who got done over or who missed what.
“That’s what you love about rugby. In these weeks you’ve got to find that competitive edge to compete every day.
“We’re trying to maximise this week to improve our game and push forward in the coming weeks.”
There was one other critical facet the All Blacks worked relentlessly on during that month, which was their defence.
Of all the areas in which the Irish had shown the All Blacks to be trailing, none was further behind than their outdated system of defending the ball rather than the space.
For the first time in the whole World Cup cycle, there is an obvious sense of euphoria among the All Blacks players.
They know they will have to reground themselves in the coming days for the semifinal against Argentina, but as they shuffle through the mixed zone deep underground at Stade de France, they are going to enjoy the moment.
They have beaten the world’s best side in an epic contest. But more than that, they have beaten the team that kick-started their rejuvenation project, and the players began to reveal just how much they have been focused on this game for the past 15 months.
“We have got a defence system there that Scott McLeod has built basically for Ireland,” Jordie Barrett explained after the 28-24 win in which the All Blacks repelled Ireland for 37 phases in the last four minutes.
“Ireland taught us a lesson at home [last year] and we had some shoddy defence when we were defending their outstanding attacking system.
“We had some wide spaces and they picked us off all game with their short passing.
“We were a lot tighter this game and we were happy to let them get to the edges a bit more and put a bit of pressure on there.”
There it was: the revelation that the All Blacks had rebuilt their entire defensive system specifically to shut down Ireland.
Johnny Sexton had hurt them in July with his ability to bring looping runners into the attack through the endless out-the-backdoor passing and New Zealand couldn’t let that happen again.
In the quarter-final, it was apparent how hard the All Blacks had trained to stay connected, tight and to pick the cues when the Irish were going to play the ball out the back.
By the second half, Barrett and Anton Lienert-Brown were brilliant at holding and then charging forward when they knew where the ball was going.
Time and again they killed the Irish attack behind the gainline, and in those last minutes, the defence never looked like cracking, with McLeod explaining why: “After the series at home last year which really hurt, we had to look at the fundamentals of the defensive game within the All Blacks.
“A big part of that was that, in Super Rugby in New Zealand, they tend to defend the man. They line up on a man and they defend the man, whereas that doesn’t work against teams like Ireland, against Italy and France and we knew we had these teams, more than likely, at this World Cup.
“We had to develop our ability to defend the ball so wherever the ball is we have to put people in front of it and what we have learned is that Ireland make you do that over and over again.
“They force you to make a decision about the ball and that was the most pleasing aspect [of the quarter-final victory], we have built the player’s skill sets from last year and we have learned some really hard lessons and then against Ireland, for the majority of the time we got that right.”
Mo’unga would say that night the performance had been 15 months in the making as every senior leadership meeting he could remember from that far back had some kind of focus on the World Cup quarter-final.
It was a triumph for Foster’s planning and ability to adapt and redirect. He’d picked the squad’s youngest and most mobile props who all made major contributions.
Jordie Barrett’s performance at 12 was heroic, Will Jordan showed why he’s such a deadly wing and the judicious use of the bench was smart.
But the real personal triumph came in the performance of captain Sam Cane, who had been belittled and humiliated by the public after the Irish series in 2022 to the point where there were widespread calls to drop him.
But Foster was always resolute about his captain and the faith was repaid in Paris where Cane gave the defining performance of his career.
What made it all the sweeter was that the All Blacks had talked all week about how Sexton and Irish flanker Peter O’Mahony would attempt to get under their skin, most likely with some verbal sledging, crass or aggressive remarks about their characters and actions.
The senior players and coaches accentuated that the only way they were going to respond was through their performance – to outplay Ireland and knock them out of the World Cup, everyone agreed, was the best way to deal with Sexton and O’Mahony.
There’s only one selection decision Foster, Schmidt and Jason Ryan have to make on the Sunday before the World Cup final.
And that is which tight-head prop to put on the bench. Everything else is sorted. They have known for months who they consider their top team to be, and they have carefully planned and managed workloads, mostly to ensure there is plenty of gas in the tank for the final, but to also generate competition.
Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock seemingly knew that the former would start the quarter-final and final if they made it and come off the bench in the semi.
Samisoni Taukei’aho, who went a bit quiet during the Rugby Championship, was brought back to the boil by missing out on selection for the Italy and Ireland games.
He was selected for the final ahead of the veteran Dane Coles.
But reserve tight-head was going to be a tough call, as the night before the All Blacks coaching team had seen how the Boks had salvaged their World Cup campaign when Ox Nche came off the bench and destroyed England’s scrum.
It was an amazing cameo performance that changed everything. The Boks were heading out, unable to deal with England’s zeal and kicking strategy.
Then Nche started winning scrum penalties, the Boks got their mojo back and everyone was hailing the bomb squad once again as miracle workers.
Foster and his fellow selectors knew they couldn’t afford a second-half scrum meltdown like that, and that while Fletcher Newell was the right choice for Ireland and Argentina, as his greater mobility, scrambling defence and ball carrying would be what the All Blacks would need, against South Africa, it would be all about the scrum in the final quarter.
And so the decision was made to go with Nepo Laulala – the squad’s most experienced and best scrummager who was tasked with one highly specific job of nullifying Nche.
By the time Laulala came on, the scrum battle was even more important than the All Blacks selectors had imagined when they picked the team.
Cane’s red card meant that the All Blacks had seven forwards going against eight, which is why Foster decided to put Jordie Barrett into the set-piece.
“We felt that the Springboks through this while tournament have shown a desire to scrum for penalties and we didn’t want to give them that out,” he said.
“We were willing to concede a bit of wide space which they were pretty efficient at taking but, while we lost 20 or 30 metres, at least we got the ball back.”
The All Blacks even had the Boks scrum under pressure in the closing period but the real triumph without actually being a triumph was the fact that they found a way to keep themselves in the game at all.
When they were shown yellow and red cards at Twickenham, they fell apart. But in the final, they were able to consolidate, regroup and stay in the fight.
This is the message Foster had preached in the days after the Twickenham loss: that they had to be braced for pedantic refereeing and heavy TMO involvement; that they had to be able to scrum for 80 minutes even with a man down; that their lineout had to function with and without the ball; and they had to shift bodies at every breakdown.
The lesson from London was that a red card and an interfering TMO were not reasons to give up playing their natural game.
It’s hard to imagine any other team in the world could have played against South Africa with 14 men for 62 minutes and come within a point – after missing two goal-kicks – of winning.
The way the All Blacks denied the Boks scoring any points in the second half while they managed to score a try of their own, have it chalked off, and then score another legitimate one a few minutes later was testament to the planning and preparation they did after losing at Twickenham.
They talked throughout the World Cup about how they would manage their game plan if they went a man down, and trained with all sorts of different scenarios where they were playing with 14 men.
But so too was the fact they played with 14 men for so long a failure of their planning and preparation, as everything they did on the training ground was about perfecting their tactical and clean-out technique, getting their body heights lower and playing within the laws.
Two days before the final, Foster was asked about the best way to counter the Springboks’ seven-one split on the bench as the tactic was first tried at Twickenham in the record loss.
“We doubled up on their 7-1 split by playing with 14 men – and 13 at one point – for part of that game,” he drily observed.
“We tried that strategy and decided we didn’t like it so we are going to try a different one.”
But in the end, they didn’t try a different one. It was the same story but worse – while the All Blacks played for 52 minutes a man down in London, they went 62 in the final.
The 12-11 loss in the final, therefore, left Foster and his team in an agonising emotional conflict. They were enormously proud of the way they rebuilt from July last year having meticulously and brilliantly fixed so many weaknesses in their game and peaked for the final three weeks of the World Cup.
But against that, there was the frustration of knowing that ill-discipline – which was such a high priority to fix in the rebuild – was the plague they couldn’t cure.
They picked up four yellows and two reds in seven games and that statistic alone is the one that explains why they came up agonisingly short of winning their fourth World Cup.