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Collapse of an empire

Gregor Paul

The tight, unsmiling, ashen-faced Ian Foster didn’t need to say a word for the world to know just how much pressure he was feeling in Bankstown, Sydney as he watched his All Blacks team fall to an historic loss to the Pumas.

His world was dramatically imploding as he experienced 80 minutes of rugby that were virtually impossible to have predicted and have plunged the All Blacks into what is starting to look like a death ride to mediocrity.

The tight, unsmiling, ashen-faced Ian Foster didn’t need to say a word for the world to know just how much pressure he was feeling in Bankstown, Sydney as he watched his All Blacks team fall to an historic loss to the Pumas.

His world was dramatically imploding as he experienced 80 minutes of rugby that were virtually impossible to have predicted and have plunged the All Blacks into what is starting to look like a death ride to mediocrity.

Foster, following eight years as Steve Hansen’s assistant, has now presided over five tests in which the All Blacks have won two, lost two and drawn one. A regulation win against the Pumas – and given they had previously landed 28 of those in 29 attempts with one draw – and he and his coaching team would be on the cusp of enjoying a moderately successful and largely encouraging first year in charge.

But the balance has been tipped in the most dramatic way, not just because the All Blacks have done what they haven’t since 2011 and lost consecutive tests or done what they have never previously done and lost to the Pumas, but because they have morphed into a side with zero composure, few ideas and almost no self-control.

A team that was once considered the toughest mentally to have ever played the game, are now unravelling and the evidence for that is everywhere.

The first signs of trouble began in September 2018 when they lost to South Africa in Wellington – a performance that former coach Hansen said was the worst in terms of game management he’d seen since the All Blacks lost to France in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final.

But the balance has been tipped in the most dramatic way, not just because the All Blacks have done what they haven’t since 2011 and lost consecutive tests or done what they have never previously done and lost to the Pumas, but because they have morphed into a side with zero composure, few ideas and almost no self-control.

Then in August the next year they collapsed in Perth. Caught up in trying to irritate Wallabies captain Michael Hooper they forgot to play any rugby, had Scott Barrett sent off, and fell to a record defeat.

Against England in the World Cup semi-final they barely featured. Either they were overawed, wound up too tight, tired or simply not interested – but whatever it was, they didn’t play like the All Blacks.

The All Blacks threw everything they had at Los Pumas but Argentina’s defence held strong. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

And now, since Foster took over, things have got worse. For two successive tests the All Blacks have been wildly ill-disciplined, totally lacking game structure and skill execution and have played with no imagination or ability to convince anyone they actually know what they are doing.

The defining memories of their last two defeats have been the dumb penalties they have conceded for players fighting off the ball. Nothing screams distracted quite like seeing Dane Coles slap an opponent in front of the referee as he did mid-way through the first half against Argentina or Shannon Frizell doing much the same thing 10 minutes earlier.

As a broken-looking Foster said after the loss to Argentina: “It was the second week in a row we haven’t had good composure when things didn’t go our way.

“There’s no excuses. It’s an All Blacks jersey and we want to be at our best every time. There certainly was two contrasting intensity levels with those teams today.

“This role always comes with pressure so what I feel right now is massive disappointment. The key right now is we’ve got a lot of good people in this group, we’ve shown we can perform at a high level and we’ve just got to go back to doing it.

“We’re hurting greatly but they should be very proud of their team. It was a historic win for them.”

Consecutive defeats in most other nations would hardly be considered a national disaster, but in New Zealand, it’s a rarity and the losses to Argentina and Australia are not in isolation.

What’s becoming apparent now is that the All Blacks are in the midst of a significant crisis which began with that loss to the Springboks in 2018. They have been in decline since then and a process that was slow, has sped up to an alarming pace.

The All Blacks have only won 17 of their last 25 tests, drawn two and lost six. That’s a win ratio of 68 percent. In their previous 25 tests before that – stemming from October 2016 to September 2018 they won 21 of 25 and drew once for a win ratio of 84 percent.

The All Blacks were out-muscled, out-played and out-thought against the Springboks in Wellington in 2018. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The 25 tests before that – between October 2014 and September 2016, they won 24 of 25 for a 96 percent win ratio. That’s the story right there – they have lost in the last two years almost a third more often than they did between 2014 and 2016.

It’s a huge drop and the question that is forming in most Kiwi minds is whether it is now in free fall and set to continue or whether this period was the inevitable re-set after such a prolonged period of success.

There’s a natural, cyclical element to test match rugby which almost says that to succeed, teams must first fail. That the route to consistent victory is paved with sporadic losses and a painful learning process that enables players to gain the vital experience they need to close out big games.

If the figures are extended over a longer period in New Zealand they paint that very picture; suggest that the incredible decade of success they enjoyed between September 2009 and September 2018 when they won 90 per cent of their tests, came after almost two years of interminable struggle.

In the 25 tests leading into September 2009, the All Blacks lost seven times and twice lost consecutive tests. It was a period of uncertainty for them but one in which the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Keven Mealamu learned how to lead, how to stay calm under pressure and how to find ways to squeeze their team over the line.

Foster is now having to hope that his young team are currently going through something similar and banking the hurt of frequent defeats and learning through the cost of their own mistakes that frustration and ill-discipline will deliver failure.

“The lesson in test match rugby is you’ve got to turn up with the right intent, the right attitude every single weekend, or you get it handed to you,” captain Sam Cane said after the Pumas game.

He, along with Foster, is now having to hope that defeat to the Pumas was the nadir. The point at which the penny drops and that the All Blacks begin a surge just as they did in late 2009 after they suffered the indignity of losing three times to South Africa.

The lesson in test match rugby is you’ve got to turn up with the right intent, the right attitude every single weekend, or you get it handed to you

All Blacks captain Sam Cane

He has to hope that the humiliation creates a response within his team-mates – that it provides the fuel for some of them to ditch the anger that has bubbled too close to the surface this year and blighted their performances.

McCaw and his leaders learned from every defeat. They let it shape them and infiltrate the team in a way that it became useful.

So far, Cane’s team have been unable to absorb the lessons of defeat and grow from them and this is where things become edgy because Foster believes he has found his best team and best squad.

His plan for next year and 2022 is to build his preferred combinations and to grow the team’s cohesion and understanding and experience.

Richie Mo’unga takes on opposite James O’Connor in the opening draw of the 2020 Bledisloe series. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It’s a sound plan because the talent at his disposal is such that if this current group can mature, ditch their red-headed nonsense and learn how to implement their own game-plan against all opponents, they have the same sort of potential as McCaw’s great side of 2012-215.

Look at who they have – Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Ardie Savea, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Cane. The talent is there to be great so questions will start coming hard and fast if this team doesn’t start playing more consistently and winning more often.

The pressure will be on for Foster to either start making selection changes and cutting those individuals, however talented, who can’t consistently deliver in the jersey.

It will also starting piling on him and his coaching team to radically re-think how they are trying to play as one great performance in Sydney and one mostly impressive game in Auckland aside, they have been tactically confused and erratic under his command.

As former Italy and Japan coach Sir John Kirwan said about the loss to the Pumas. “Predictable. They were predictable. Argentina were chopping us down every time we carried it into contact, and we didn’t bring a short kicking game into that second half at all to counter it.

“We got frustrated. The leaders got frustrated and gave away silly penalties. They [Pumas] were hungrier to get on the loose ball. Honestly, that was the best defensive effort I have seen from any side in a long time.

“I think England showed everyone a blueprint in the World Cup; get up fast, put them under pressure, and they don’t have a plan B.”

The empire is collapsing and Foster has limited time in which to prove he can rebuild it.

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