The quest to find the next All Black coach is beginning to feel a bit like the election of the pope – when 120 cardinals meet in secret to vote the next pontiff in, the successful candidate's ascension marked by the famed puff of smoke.
There seems almost as many people involved in New Zealand Rugby's selection procedure: NZR chairman Brent Impey, incoming CEO Mark Robinson, head of high performance Mike Anthony, former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry and former Silver Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu.
Never mind the 26 coaches asked to apply , there are also 10-11 All Black players in the selection process – not, you would think, to name their preference but to state what they think the All Blacks need in terms of coaching, direction and support.
The curious thing is that many New Zealand rugby followers and media people seem all too enthusiastic over a "fresh start". There's a lot of public opposition to succeeding Steve Hansen with loyal lieutenant Ian Foster – and eager speculation about Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, former Chiefs coach Dave Rennie and the coaching duo of Jamie Joseph and the canny Tony Brown, who did so well with Japan.
But will NZR really spit Foster out now – or are many fans and media folk just indulging in the old blood sport of savaging any All Black coach who does not bring back the World Cup?
Take another look at that panel. Revolutionaries, they are not. Henry seems key; we all know what happened when he was given a second shot after the horrors of 2007. If Henry founded a new church called the Continuity Chapel, you wouldn't be surprised.
Nor does the most interesting appointment – Wai Taumaunu – impress as a likely insurgent. She coached the Silver Ferns for eight years before resigning, saying the team needed "a fresh start". There were few viable replacements. That "fresh start" saw Janine Southby take over – and the Ferns' fortunes plummet until Noeline Taurua guided them back to World Cup success this year.
Foster's light has unquestionably dimmed following the World Cup campaign – but is it really sound to tip him overboard now? Certainly his critics are vocal: never won anything as a Super Rugby coach; rides on Hansen's shirttails, represents old thinking that went wrong in Japan; fresh start needed.
So far, so shallow…The All Blacks, while Foster has been involved, have played 119 tests, winning 105, drawing four and losing 10. That's an 88 per cent winning record. His detractors will quickly claim those are Hansen's stats, not Foster's. But Foster has not been a silent lieutenant, a Hansen 'yes' man - the gossip around the last coaching panel suggests debate aplenty.
Still, that record dulls a bit if you look at the last three years since 2017 – down to 80 per cent which falls further to 72 per cent in 2019. That is well below the All Blacks' all-time win record of 77 per cent.
But while Foster might be subject to some vigorous cross-examination in the court of public opinion, the plain fact is that continuity doesn't rule against a fresh approach to a fresh situation.
After all, what was the heinous crime of the Hansen-Foster-Scott McLeod coaching axis in the World Cup? They opted for an all-out attacking approach. It worked against South Africa, when 10 minutes of attacking brilliance undid the eventual World Cup winners, and was totally successful against a shell-shocked Ireland.
They were then rocked by a virtuoso England performance with the ball in the first half – a level of attack the English did not produce before or after. In the second half, the All Blacks failed to adjust their game as they were met with that unforgiving England defence.
That's it. Beaten by a better display on the day (and the rush defence and the offside laws but let's not get into that again…). It was warming, in that defeat, to see the All Blacks taking it better than the English took theirs - snatching their medals and seeking a dark corner in which to suck their thumbs.
Overall, the fluent rugby displayed by the All Blacks , Japan, France (on occasion) and, yes, England (for a half) will surely hold sway as rugby evolves again. What is required in the All Blacks is a tweak rather than a tornado; a Plan B to go with Plan A (for Attack). A fresh start? Really?
Will a new coaching team win the job by promising NZR to take the All Blacks back to a power pack, kicking halves, a la the Springboks, and replace the attacking philosophy with a territorial strategy? Doubtful, highly unlikely…
More like, as Impey has already said, the day will be won by candidates who put together the best team of specialists: "Whether it's a scrum coach, attacking coach, we want to see who you are bringing with you."
To go back to the Vatican and the election of a new pope, there is a lot of horse trading. As hopeful cardinals fall out of that race, they still exert an influence on the outcome as they throw their political weight behind one of those still contending.
Joseph and the in-demand Brown have simultaneously strengthened and weakened their chances by making it clear they come as a bloc. But for those without international experience, maybe an accommodation and a fit with Foster is next best if they sense they may not win the top job. That could bring the likes of Robertson and Rennie into play, giving them a box seat as the next coach, should things go wrong or at the next outward flow through the coaching door.
So a panel of Foster-Robertson-McLeod or Foster-Rennie-McLeod or even Foster-Robertson-Rennie becomes a possibility if such accommodations can be made among the 26. Joseph and Brown cannot be dismissed and nor can dark horse Vern Cotter who did so well with Clermont and Scotland – but who may not be happy with anything but a head coach role.
If we ignore continuity and chuck Foster out with the bath water, who are we really punishing? Ourselves?