The tipping point of New Zealand rugby appears to be near. alarmist? Perhaps. Yet as the All Blacks embark on a defined South African tour, New Zealand become increasingly impatient for signs of a revival of their iconic rugby tradition. Massive venting ignited after the All Blacks lost against Ireland in Wellington two weeks ago – a result that led to Ian Foster’s widely ridiculed All Blacks losing their first home series in 27 years, their first against the Irish and Inspired for their fourth defeat in five Tests.
Why the anger Such a sharp plateau creates a unified condemnation through New Zealand’s social and political divide. The All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby held high-powered meetings behind closed doors after six days of silence. The information void gave rise to wild speculation, with calls for the sacking of everyone from the coach to the captain. Ian Foster, the coach at least, survived despite a 66.7% win record, which ranks him as the worst All Black coach ever. professional era.
In a defiant, emotional address last week, Foster attempted to combat the rising red haze. Yet he can secure his future only by making immediate changes to two brutal Tests on the South African highveld. There have been casualties in the form of All Blacks forward coach John Plumtree and attack mentor Brad Moore – both showing the door months later. Re-signing for the 2023 World Cup. The sacking of mid-term coaches is a cut-off notion, far more aligned with European football than uber-conservative New Zealand rugby, reflecting continued public pressure and a constant demand for change.
While rugby’s ranking requires Pythagoras’s theorem to fathom, the All Blacks falling to fourth place for the first time aptly reflects their struggles. For the vocal undefeated, the circumstances surrounding Foster’s accession to the All Blacks throne — after eight years as Steve Hansen on the continuation ticket as assistant — and the team’s subsequent malaise, make the death an obvious cause of death. A challenging Covid scenario has been unkind to Foster’s turbulent tenure, but the now-obvious erosion of the All Blacks and their fear factor can be traced back to the draw in the 2017 British and Irish Lions series and the World Cup semi-final for England two years later. For a crushing defeat.
Like climate change deniers, many New Zealand rugby fans refuse to acknowledge the change of guard or that there are deeper issues at play than the coach. While New Zealand rugby boasts a legacy of success, unrealistic expectations that the All Blacks win every Test were dominated by the Untouchables team from 2012–2016, having lost twice in five years.
The All Blacks at the time make a compelling argument for New Zealand’s best team ever. Only now, in a time of extreme despair and calls for a coaching cleanout, are his exploits truly appreciated. His likes will probably never be seen again. Further coaching changes could help improve the fortunes of the All Blacks, but that theory is ruling out the northern nations’ significant improvement since 2015, with France and Ireland now leading the charge. The top is closed – and there is every reason to believe that it will remain that way.
From New Zealand’s point of view, a total reset may be needed. Quick-fix solutions like the introduction of six-time Super Rugby winning Crusaders coach Scott Robertson may not provide a quick cure. Written and under siege as they face rugby’s toughest task, the All Blacks may silence their doubters by pulling off an upset win against the world champion Springboks in the coming weeks. But even in that utopian scenario, the deeper issues of New Zealand rugby will not be addressed. Scour the surface and a plethora of challenges emerge.
This week Hansen launched a scathing attack that laid responsibility for a series of setbacks at the feet of the New Zealand Rugby Board, saying the relationship between the board and the players was “probably the worst it has ever been”.
Other issues include the number of teenage boys playing rugby at alarming rates for the past eight years – up from 17% in 2018, a time when basketball’s popularity grew by 41%. This can be partly attributed to the commercialization of schoolboy rugby, and the lack of attention paid to those below the first XV of the elite. In Auckland alone the number of secondary school rugby teams fell from 225 to 181 between 2013 and 2018.
This grassroots scene, where many clubs have folded and amalgamated, also has a profound effect on participation and engagement, while crowds and ratings for the elite sport are declining. New Zealand’s talent development, especially the under-20s team at that time, has been in decline since 2017 before a sudden revival this season.
In the professional arena this year’s 12-team Super Rugby competition was redrawn, lacking the contrasting, confrontational styles. The absence of South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Argentina, leaves largely homogenous competitions that do not prepare New Zealand’s players for the belligerent, suffocating Test arena. And while a recent $200m deal with US private investment firm Silver Lake provides financial security, the potential long-term pressure points of that arrangement are unclear. As Blues coach Leon McDonald said earlier this year, dwindling depth is another pressing concern. From Major League Rugby in America to Japan and Europe, New Zealand stocks are most popular for loot.
“It’s an issue,” McDonald said. “The depth of our players is becoming less and less. It’s something we’ve seen that it’s getting harder and harder to find the players we need.”
A golden all black era masked creek that has developed in the crevices. But as the treasured pyramid head now threatens to collapse, the Shaky Isles rumble at the start of a reckoning with their national game.