Coach Ian Foster of the All Blacks looks on during the Super Rugby Pacific Semi Final match between the Blues and the Brumbies. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
There are many things All Blacks coach Ian Foster needs his team to be in their first five tests of 2022 if he and his coaching group are to remain in their jobs beyond
A campaign that starts this Saturday with the first of three tests against Ireland, before moving to South Africa for two clashes in the Republic, will demand the All Blacks be intensely physical, organized and effective at set piece, clever and creative with the ball and crushing on defense.
To compete effectively against two of the most organized and accurate defensive sides, the All Blacks will also have to deliver a smart kicking strategy, sensible and consistent game management and a technical polish and ruthlessness at the breakdown, while also catching the inevitable torrent of contestable kicks that will rain upon them.
But the next five tests are considerably more than a box-ticking exercise and the All Blacks must do more than simply prove, in sporadic bursts, that they can produce all the component parts required to be successful.
What the next five tests have to deliver is an emphatic sense of who the All Blacks are going to be under Foster’s command.
Whether it’s fair or not, the perception that exists that Foster took over from Steve Hansen in 2020 and rolled out a game plan that was built on many of the same structural foundations.
That would have been fine had the All Blacks played with an overwhelming dynamism and clarity that produced undeniably strong performances and indisputable results.
But for the two years Foster has been in charge, the All Blacks have bounced from being almost brilliant at times to vulnerable, and the volatility has created an element of uncertainty about what sort of rugby the national team are trying to play and what they would consider to be their defining characteristics.
There has been as much confusion as there has cohesion and while some of this can be attributed to the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic world the team has had to battle since Foster took charge, the review of the 2021 season also highlighted concerns about the competency of some in the wider coaching group.
It would seem the upshot is that many of New Zealand’s rugby-following public have been burdened with doubt about where this All Blacks side is heading, and fear that it is not evolving.
After two years there has been no definitive sense of progress and this is what needs to change against Ireland. By the end of the series, there needs to be a body of evidence that Foster has redefined who and what his All Blacks are all about.
When Hansen arrived as head coach in 2012 he had a vision of evolving the All Blacks into a triple team where they were able to pass, run or kick depending on what they encountered.
Foster needs a similarly catchy maxim for his rugby vision – one that the public can not only understand and be inspired by, but one that accurately matches what is produced on the field.
The nation needs to see an All Blacks team in which it can believe: a style of rugby that is innovative, robust, flexible and capable of being advanced and grown through to the World Cup.
The All Blacks are highly likely – unless Scotland can play the role of disruptor – to meet either Ireland or South Africa in the quarter-final of next year’s tournament.
Ideally for Foster, the All Blacks will produce a style of rugby to accumulate five wins against these two teams.
And if they can’t, they at least must produce a style of rugby and consistency of performance that provides a basis of confidence that they will be capable of beating both in a knockout game next year.
So what precisely needs to be delivered to ensure that confidence in Foster and his coaching team pervades?
A series win against Ireland is a must and really it needs to be 3-0, while at least one victory needs to be secured in South Africa.
But just as importantly, at no time in the next five tests can the All Blacks appear physically inferior. There can’t be a sustained period of any test in which the forwards can’t impose themselves in the collision or set piece.
One whiff of frailty and the gig is up for this coaching group: intimidation needs to be restored to the heart of the All Blacks narrative.
Nor can there be a post-test analysis devoted to asking the same old question of why the backs couldn’t generate any meaningful attacks in the face of sustained defensive line speed.
That story is tired and unsustainable because if Ireland can manage to shut Beauden Barrett down for one whole test in July, can anyone be confident they wouldn’t be able to do the same at the World Cup next year?
The pressure is on Foster and his coaching team – but it is pressure that can be eradicated if the All Blacks finish the Irish series as a team the nation better understands.