Gregor Paul reveals what New Zealand Rugby's review of Ian Foster's first season in charge as All Blacks head coach discovered – and how NZR are set to approach talks of an extension to his contract.
There is an understandable and even pragmatic rationale to seeing how the 2021 international season plays out before taking a view on whether to extend incumbent All Blacks coach Ian Foster's contract.
With only six tests played last year and no certainty about when the All Blacks will play this year and against whom despite there being a 15-test schedule in place, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson is leaving the business of contract extensions on hold for now.
"Given the disruptions to the game last year and what is looking like a disrupted 2021 we do not have any fixed timeline on discussions with our All Blacks coaches," he says.
This non-committal approach will have its supporters, who will interpret this lack of timeline and expectation as sensible, cautious management that puts the pressure on the coaching team to earn the right to open discussion about extending.
Deliver results and we can start talking is the underlying message and Robinson is never going to be accused of being reckless or impetuous by biding his time.
But there is also a sort of needless cruelty to leaving this Sword of Damocles dangling after Foster and his coaching team had to operate in a season of unprecedented disruption and are now likely to be doing so again in the second and last year of their contracts.
Those who sit with Robinson in the wait and see camp need to declare what exactly it is they are waiting to see. Of what precisely do those charged with making this decision about Foster's longer-term future need to be convinced, because when last season's formal review of the All Blacks' season was placed in front of the board, it was mostly gold stars.
Results fluctuated but it would be wildly unrealistic not to have expected that in an unprecedented year in which the All Blacks had to live and play most of their games in Australia.
Reviews, by necessity, dig deeper than results and are why NZR has historically made decisions on the findings of the former rather than purely reacting to the latter and why in 2003, John Mitchell may still have been moved on as head coach even if the All Blacks had won the World Cup.
Reviews are the skewer that gets to the middle of the cake and when NZR pulled the tester out last year, they saw a clean blade confirming that all was well.
The players were motivated and connected, the culture was strong, inclusive and inspiring and the wider management team was respected by all and united.
Foster was appointed on a ticket of continuity. He was backed to bring a stable and yet driven environment where he could build on the foundation his predecessor Steve Hansen had built.
The review says he did exactly what he was put into the job to do and in nearly all previous instances, this has been enough to trigger negotiations about an extension.
Hansen, like Foster, was first appointed on a two-year contract in 2012. He began talks about an extension in early 2013 on the strength of the review he posted after his first season.
It was the same with Graham Henry in 2004 – talks to extend his two-year contract began before the All Blacks played their first test in 2005.
By not having any transparency around the process with Foster, it does appear as if NZR want to shift their assessment weighting more towards results.
That's the inference – that Foster and his team will be judged on what happens in July and/or the Rugby Championship, yet there is no certainty that Italy or Fiji will be able to fulfil those first three scheduled fixtures.
And even if they do, does beating Italy and Fiji provide a strong enough confirmation that Foster and his team are worthy of reappointment?
If judgement is reserved until the Rugby Championship, what will be the board's expectations? Will the All Blacks have to win the competition for Foster to win an extension?
Expectation and pressure are inherent in the role of head coach and Foster and his team need no reminding that their contracts, regardless of length, will always be dependent on them delivering.
There's a fine line, though, where pressure and expectation cease to be conducive and simply become stressful and right now, Foster may be standing right on it, wondering why a board that gave him the job hasn't doubled down and backed him to be in it for longer now that he's proven his capability.
He has good reason to ask what is the benefit to NZR of waiting and not pushing all their chips into the middle of the table now and telling Foster they are all in.
Pragmatism is the right approach for NZR, but it might be better achieved by making a commitment to Foster now rather than at a yet to be specified date.