Under-pressure coach Ian Foster says his focus is purely on winning in South Africa, rather than the potentially tenuous nature of his position with the freefalling All Blacks.
Foster spoke to the media sideline at Sky Stadium in Wellington on the second day of the team’s pre-Rugby Championship camp and batted away questions about his future after he was spared the ax in a coaching shakeup following the 2-1 July series loss to Ireland .
While many pundits believed a change was needed at the top, New Zealand Rugby instead decided to sack assistants John Plumtree and Brad Mooar – a call that came at considerable cost, considering the payout made previously to get Mooar out of his contract in Wales and the fact that the coaching team had only recently been re-signed through 2023.
Foster’s retention may or may not reflect a lack of viable alternatives, with successor-in-waiting Scott Robertson understood to be unavailable, and potential caretaker Joe Schmidt also apparently unwilling to expand his role beyond his current part-time job as a selector and coaching “advisor” for Foster.
The head coach has been steadfastly defiant in his media appearances that followed the now infamous canceled press conference in Wellington on Sunday in the wake of the third-test defeat by Ireland. It was the All Blacks’ first home series loss since the 2-0 sweep by France in 1994, and was a fourth defeat in the last five tests for the New Zealanders.
He fronted last Friday in Auckland after the squad announcement and then appeared on the friendly ‘Breakdown’ show on Sky to talk about the coaching shakeup, among other hot topics.
Asked if his position would be untenable with a poor performance in the Rugby Championship, which opens with back-to-back tests against the world champion Springboks in South Africa, Foster said: “It’s not something I think about. I think about just doing the best I can in my role.”
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The probe continued. He was asked, would he consider resigning should the defeats continue?
“Like I said, I don’t think about that,” he replied. “My job is to get excited about taking the team to South Africa.”
Was the key not to panic in this sort of situation?
“We’re not panicking. I’m not sure about the rest of the people.”
Foster did share how difficult it had been having the hard conversations with Plumtree and Mooar who had both been handpicked by him as key figures in a coaching team he was adamant at the time “ticked all the boxes”.
Though given how things have played out in the two and a-bit years of their existence, some might take issue with their framing of their legacy. The All Blacks won only half their tests in a Covid-shortened 2020 programme, and suffered three defeats in 2021 – the most since the four dropped in 2009.
“Oh horrible, there is no other word for that,” he said of the call to the duo. “[They’re] good men, but my role is to do what I think is best for the team and put the team first and sometimes that’s at the detriment of an individual.
“I don’t think it’s a massive judgment on them at all as coaches. It’s just we kind of need to make a bit of a change.”
Asked why the assistants had been retained following a 2021 end-of-year-review that reportedly highlighted some concerns around their efficacy, Foster fended off the claim.
“That might be a little more media chat, speculation, than factual,” he said. “We always review hard and we always review hard particularly when we’ve had a year like we had.
“We were on tour for three and a-half months, locked in hotels … so how you reviewed that it was a little bit different, and everyone went away with some key work-ons. I stand by that decision and I stand by this one.”
Foster denied Blues coach Leon MacDonald would be the next addition to the coaching group – “We’re happy where we’re at right now,” he said – and reaffirmed the change to bring in Jason Ryan had been a shared decision with the board . He also said there had been no demands regarding the next couple of games in South Africa.
“I don’t need them to tell me what we want to do,” he added. “We want to play well. With all the emotions around when you lose a series, it’s easy for people to get scratchy and poke holes, and I get all that and accept all that.
“But it doesn’t change our job, which is to get the group to play well.”
And would anything less than twin victories in South Africa be considered a failure?
”We’re going into the Rugby Championship to try to win. No All Blacks team wants to go over and [lose]. We’re in a challenge like I’ve never had before. I think it’s up to at 10 guys who haven’t been to South Africa. It’s a unique situation for this group but, wow, what a great opportunity for us.”