If not for coronavirus, All Blacks coach Ian Foster would have now been close to naming his squad for the first test of 2020, against Wales at Eden Park on July 4, after five months travelling every weekend, checking out form in Super Rugby.
Foster did spend a lot of time on the road during Covid-19 level 2, but not going to rugby stadiums. He and his wife Leigh travelled to Whangamata to visit his mother, then to Gisborne to see Leigh's parents. Back home in Hamilton he looked ahead to the resumption of rugby in these strange times.
Where did you spend lockdown?
At home. I spent most of the time Zooming, adjusting spread sheets that changed every second day, with plans and schedules, spending time with the family, gardening, mowing the lawn, hopping on the exercise bike, and learning how to cook butter chicken.
Before you announce your first All Black team, will you be returning to the normal pattern of spending time at the Super Rugby franchises?
At first we won't be. We've always gone (around the franchises), and that's been a great chance to actually see players train. You can learn a lot from seeing how they move, and how they react in different environments.
But to ensure that we kept the Super Rugby environment as safe as possible. We agreed we wouldn't initially be adding people to each team's bubble. Our medical and training staff have been doing everything electronically.
If changes in the regulations mean that Plum (John Plumtree), Foxy (Grant Fox) and myself will be able to get to the grounds, that'll be great. We're looking forward to that. We're hopeful that things will change, and that'll let us get to some trainings.
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Have you still been getting detailed figures from the training the Super teams have been doing?
Yes. We have weekly meetings of our management team where we go through a list of players, and look at where they're at physically and technically and mentally. Obviously we've had to guess some of that under the (Covid-19) regulations.
The collaboration between (All Blacks conditioning coach) Nic Gill and (All Blacks physio) Pete Gallagher with the Super clubs' strength and conditioning staff has been excellent. If anything Covid-19 has made that connection even stronger. At that level everyone's working really well.
What's your impression of the current fitness levels of the Super players, compared to the start of a normal season?
In many cases they're slightly higher aerobically. I guess when you're locked down it's actually easier to jump on a bike or a treadmill and do some of that extra stuff. Some have done so much they've actually lost a bit too much weight.
What's taking a little time to catch up is the strength work. Not everybody had great set-ups in their garage with weights and gym gear. It's not for a lack of application, just the lack of resources.
The other side is that you have to build up your contact resistance. You can't just jump out of seven or eight weeks of not being smacked around and expect to be ready for contact.
History shows that in 2007 when 24 All Blacks were out of Super Rugby for the first two months, working on gym fitness, they suffered a lot of injuries when they returned and played against match-hardened players. Is that a concern now?
There's no doubt there are some very enthusiastic players who want to play, and feel fit right now. But there's got to be that gradual build-up each week. The work on that in the franchises has been excellent.
They're monitoring people every day to see how they're handling the loads, and the sharing behind the scenes has been excellent. It's a new era for everyone.
My guess is that the players won't be quite where they would have been at the start of a normal season. The positive is that they're all playing each other, so everyone has had the same things to deal with, and they'll all be at the same level.
There will be a mental edge there. If anyone was starting to feel a bit ho-hum about the game, well, once you lose something you realise how much you love it. So I think there'll be a passion that will compensate for a few things.
There was a tremendous amount of interest in the decision on the All Black coaching job between yourself and Scott Robertson. What is your relationship with him like now?
It's fine. He's a great lateral thinker, so we've had conversations in the last few weeks about how we all deal with what's been going on.
From my view I never considered that I was competing with someone. I was presenting a case for the job, and then other people had to choose. For me it's now business as normal.
Are you looking forward to daylight rugby?
Yes, it'll be exciting. With Super Rugby being played much later into winter than normal, I think the changes to afternoon starts will be well received.
What differences do you expect at the breakdown in Super games?
A lot of work was done at World Rugby at the start of the year about whether we should revise laws around the breakdown after the World Cup.
Really the conclusion from a group of coaches and referees I was involved with, along with Joe Schmidt, was that originally the breakdown was refereed really hard, but that over time things slipped. I think we'll see a lot of clarity (in Super Rugby). Some of the key things are actually what it should always be.
Things like the ball carrier only being allowed one movement on the ground, with no elbowing forward. The tackler has to get out, and has no rights on the ground. We'd got a bit lenient, and the tackler was hanging around and slowing the ball down.
People who want to steal the ball have to get there legally, they can't go off their feet first. The onus is on them to show the ref that they are sustaining their own weight and lifting the ball.
Players clearing out bodies can't dive down on the ground. You can still be aggressive, but you have to driving, not diving onto someone on the ground just to hurt them. We just need clarity around the breakdown area, having everybody knowing what their role is.
Is the aim a faster game?
That's the potential outcome. The beautiful thing about rugby is that a team's attitude decides how fast they want to play. Some of our local games are very quick now. We need that consistency at an international level too.
After the semifinal loss to England last year at the World Cup, do you have any concerns that there's enough physicality in our game, as well as skill and speed?
I think there's more than adequate physicality in our game. If you look at the All Blacks, or look at our Super teams they play a very physical game at the tackle and the breakdown.
When teams decide to stifle the All Blacks with a very simple plan, with a lot of big ball carriers, and they're happy to grind us out through set pieces, to turn us around and play a strong defensive line, you could call that physicality, or just call it tactics.
When teams do that, basically smothering us, that's something we have to get better at dealing with. It's not something that we see a lot of at Super level. That's not the fault of anyone, it's just the style of game we play.
Super Rugby's tough, but it's a very different toughness to a lot of test matches, where teams play a very territory based game, slow things down, and turn it into an arm wrestle. That's the sort of physicality we have to get a lot better at dealing with.
So are you looking to make changes in how the All Blacks play?
We have to grow. In the eight years I've been there we've learned that the losses we have tend to have a similar feel. It's been against teams that want to play a close quarter, set piece game against us, and in many cases it's been successful. We've got to get better at handling that.
I don't want to go out playing every test match like that, but we do need to get more composed when playing that type of game.