All Blacks coach Ian Foster on All Blacks tour. Video / Sky Sport
Ian Foster has taken criticism on the chin following the All Blacks’ back-to-back losses to Ireland and France, but believes there are many positives for his side to take into next year.
In a wide-ranging interview on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown, the under-fire All Blacks coach reflected on the team’s disappointing end to their season, which included consecutive test defeats for the first time since 1999.
Foster acknowledged the strong backlash from fans, with many calling for his head, and admitted slow starts played a big part in the team’s poor performances, especially against France on Sunday.
“It’s been disappointing and we kind of know the reaction of our fans and everyone when we don’t get a win,” Foster told The Breakdown.
“I think in both games we really struggled to get going on in the first half. If you looked at [Sunday], we enabled a French team to get a lot of early momentum against us. It was an amazing environment; crowd got right behind it and got really passionate. And it became hard to handle after that for a while.
“The positive thing … was we came right back into it and I thought in that third quarter we really played the way that we really wanted to play against them. We imposed ourselves with our ball carrying, particularly up the middle, and created some opportunities.
“We just weren’t quite good enough in the end to lock that away. We’ve had two teams that have been waiting for us and it’s probably at the end of our season and they were fresh and had really targeted that game. It just showed that they’re good quality teams and we’re going to have to be our best to beat them.”
While not trying to make excuses for the team, Foster admitted 2021 was a “difficult year” for the All Blacks, who embarked on a gruelling northern tour amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I get the fact that people are upset that we lost two games. And it’s hard to explain the circumstances that we’ve been in,” he said.
“I don’t want to be coming across as if we’re giving excuses for that, but you know this has been a remarkably difficult year in many ways. Having 12-13 weeks on the road in hotels and quarantines, we’ve had two lots of five consecutive test matches in a row and we’ve really run out of steam in the last two.
“I think there are some massive positives there, there’s some frustrating negatives and we’ve got to look at why particularly we didn’t start those last two tests well in those first 20 minutes. Because we allowed both teams to dictate to us and it made it really hard to wrestle momentum back.”
Despite the long, packed season, the All Blacks still finished the year with 12 test wins out of 15, including locking up the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship trophies yet again.
But the way the All Blacks lost in their final two tests will undoubtedly be a cause for concern. Have the All Blacks lost ground on the rest of the rugby world?
“I reckon it’s kind of hard. 2021 is going to be a tough year to get a measure of in many ways,” Foster said.
“Some teams have played not enough rugby. England, Ireland and France haven’t really played anything in that July window. France played Australia but they left a lot of their players behind. And you’ve got the southern hemisphere teams who have probably ended up playing too much rugby in this Covid and quarantine world.
“If you look at it, Argentina really struggled this year with the amount of travel they had. South Africa ended up losing five tests, Australia lost seven tests and we ended up losing three tests out of 15. I don’t believe it’s all doom and gloom. I’m actually really proud of what this group’s done on this tour.
“It’s been an absolutely unique time. It’s been three months of a largely hotel base, we’ve had a larger squad. We’ve ended up having to rotate our squad more just for the health of the group. Short term that probably hurt a bit, long term I think it’s going to build us some really good depth and options. But clearly I think the northern hemisphere teams in this particular window in 2021 were a lot fresher than the southern hemisphere teams.”
Foster also said the All Blacks’ season, especially the two recent losses, will provide an invaluable learning opportunity for the team and he saw plenty of positives to take from the tour.
“I think we’ve had a long season, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, we’ve been able to grow a broader base of players than perhaps we would normally be able to do in a standard All Blacks season – I think that’s a positive. But we’ve also learned some areas that we did get exposed to.
“We’re pretty happy – and when I say happy – we felt in the Rugby Championship we were really trending in the right direction. We did well against Australia and Argentina, we had a solid win against South Africa – a tight struggle which went either way.
“And then we’ve come up here and I think felt pressured by the environments and potentially the way that both Ireland and France held the ball against us for long periods and made us make a lot of tackles early. That’s probably one of the biggest learnings for us, is how can we actually get our hands on the ball a little bit earlier and start imposing ourselves. Because when we do, we show that we can actually really take it to them.
“So, good lessons, good experiences for a number of people who haven’t been up here and felt that and experienced that. Going into the next two years, hopefully we can more of these sorts of games because we’ve sort of had a diet of Australia and Argentina before this.”
As for the pressure around his job as head coach, Foster said he will put his head down and focus on his task of turning things around next year.
“I’ve got a job to do, I’m very passionate about what I do with this group. I’ve got a lot of belief in what we’ve achieved this year and I’m not going to be swayed off task by a couple of performances at the end of the year where we’ve won 80 per cent of our tests and lost the last two.
“You’ve got to go through some of these lessons sometimes as an All Blacks team. It’s not like this is a fully established, with experience right across the board. We’re growing some depth and combinations in this group right now. With that, it’s come with a couple of weeks of a couple of painful lessons. The key is not to run away from that and hide, it’s to embrace it and say it is what it is. We’ve got a couple of smacks and to make sure we learned the lessons from that. It’s my job to lead that.”
Foster also confirmed that his coaching group is “largely in place” for the 2023 World Cup, but added it’s not “100 per cent confirmed yet”.
Ultimately, Foster wasn’t paying attention to the critics and is choosing to get on with the job at hand.
“I know everyone bays for blood at times like this. It’s the nature of the job. But our goal is to make sure we’ve got the right plan going forward to do well in the World Cup. It’s like with the All Blacks, it’s not just about winning the World Cup.
“In fact, a lot of the criticism coming now is based on you lose a couple of tests and people start to panic a little bit and start to feel that the team is losing their way. But if I look at the bigger picture and think, we’ve won a lot of tests this year, we’re developing a number of players, we’re changing a few things on the park, we’ve been living in a hotel together for three months, then I think we’re going to use the base of what we’ve achieved this year from a team culture and environment to really push through and do well.
“For us and as an All Blacks coach, I’m always accountable. But every test is important, so it’s not just about building for the World Cup, it’s about getting next year right.”
• Watch the full interview with Ian Foster on The Breakdown in your video player above.