The ancient idiom “to damn someone with faint praise” is the equivalent of what we know today as being given “the full support of the board”.
Earlier this week in Birmingham, NZ Rugby CEO Mark Robinson, stopped short of doing both, essentially calling “last chance” on embattled All Blacks coach Ian Foster, by refusing to endorse his tenure.
“He’s certainly the person to lead the team to South Africa, and we’re making sure they’ve got everything possible in the way of resourcing and support to make sure that’s successful,” Robinson said, before watching his men’s and women’s sevens sides settle for Commonwealth Games bronze.
There are no bronze medals up for grabs over this next week for Ian Foster. Either the Springboks are dealt with or the All Blacks will have a new coach for the completion of the Rugby Championships, through to next year’s World Cup.
Winning in South Africa is hard enough at the best of times. But under this kind of intense media and public pressure? With leading players like Brodie Retallick and Anton Leinert-Brown unavailable?
Foster is a level-headed, unflappable character and, chatting to and joking with the media last night (AEST), he gave no indication whatsoever of being a man under any more pressure than normal, by getting straight on to the front foot.
“We’re so excited about the opening of the Rugby Championship, and being in South Africa, there’s no better place to start,” he began.
For a side in desperate need of a few wins, it could be said that the draw this year hasn’t fallen kindly for the All Blacks. But there is also a sense that the best thing that could happen was for the side to get out of the local media spotlight and get away on tour, with Foster delighted that his players had been able to get out and experience some of the local sights, after arriving in Mbombela.
He also hinted that being thrown straight in to play South Africa was not such a bad thing.
“When you come over here the size of the challenge is really obvious. We’re really focused and determined to improve our game, but there’s no doubt that the size of the challenge over here gives you great clarity.”
So, clarity or not, does Foster have the 23 players at his disposal that can upset the World Cup champions at home and, in the process, save his bacon?
Changes have been made to the front row, some of them enforced, with Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tu’ungafasi not touring. Loosehead George Bower was one of the few players to emerge from the Ireland series with his reputation unscathed, and he is joined by Angus Ta’avao, hoping for a better outcome than what befell him in Dunedin.
With the lineout a schemozzle in Wellington, Codie Taylor has paid the price; Samisoni Taukei’aho likely to be a popular choice at hooker.
Foster spoke about wanting to continue to explore what Scott Barrett brings at 6, but ultimately his hand was forced by the absence of Retallick, and the opportunity to leverage off Barrett and Sam Whitelock’s combination at the Crusaders.
With captain Sam Cane and Ardie Savea certain starters, Foster had no choice to go big at No 6, speaking firstly about Shannon Frizell’s return to the squad, before expanding on Akira Ioane’s selection, and what is expected of him.
“He’s a big man, a physical man, a skilled man,” said Foster. “But all of that needs to be dovetailed with work-rate. I want him to be himself, but he also has to keep up his work-rate.”
In the third Test loss to Ireland, there were glimpses of what Ioane can be. And because he’s experienced enough to know he isn’t going to be rag-dolling any Springbok forward, that may just be the catalyst for Ioane to find his niche – to discover his inner Kaino, if you like – and do the job that Foster needs him to do.
For all of his undoubted ability, it’s a risky selection going all in on Ioane, in such a high stakes game.
Foster played a straight bat when it came to the Barrett versus Mounga question, although the fact that South Africa won’t be shy about testing the All Blacks back three under the high ball, probably influences the decision to start Beauden Barrett at 10.
Jordie Barrett is proven under the high ball, and is a superior goal-kicker to his brother, so his selection at 15 was in all likelihood, one of the easier ones.
This will no doubt frustrate the many fans itching to see Will Jordan at 15, but by playing Jordan on the wing, alongside Jordie Barrett, this gives the All Blacks better security against Faf de Klerk’s high lobs.
Caleb Clarke takes the other wing spot; a player who hasn’t had a lot of rugby in recent times, but who had seemed to recover his spark and power running game earlier in the year, before injury and suspension got hold of him.
Injury remains a factor in the midfield, so 12 came down to a straight choice between David Havili and Quinn Tupaea, with Havili’s greater experience, and recent stand-out performance in the Super Rugby final, giving him the nod.
Given the players on tour, the bench selection looks straightforward enough, with only Finlay Christie’s selection over Folau Fakatava at halfback likely to divide opinion.
This becomes more straightforward when you hear Foster talk about how important it is for his side to match the Springbok’s physicality, but at the same time, still try to play their own game, at pace.
That’s actually one of the intriguing elements about this Test match. Almost certainly, neither side will spring any surprises on the other. Each knows how the other plays.
The message seems to be, if there are to be adjustments to the All Blacks’ game plan – and surely there needs to be – expect them to be subtle. This selection feels like nothing like panic, and everything like affirming belief in their systems, just needing to do things better.
The key to that however, is that success at a high pace, fast ball movement style of game is dependent on a far higher level of skill execution than what was witnessed in the Ireland series.
Whether that can be delivered with De Klerk and Damian de Allende firing bullets out of the line at them is problematic. But one thing the All Blacks won’t be short of is resolve.
“When I say this is a massive challenge, it’s also very special,” says Foster. “When you’re in the All Blacks there’s no better place to be. You have to be at your best, and if you’re not at your best, you lose.”
It’s the only inkling Foster provides as to his personal situation, and a faint one at that. “We’re pretty determined to show that this team has got the character to improve from the last series,” he concludes.
If the All Blacks are to go down, if Foster is to go down, at least they will go down fighting, against New Zealand’s traditional, in enemy territory.
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The response that everyone expected in the third Test against Ireland, but never came, has been rescheduled for this weekend.
The overarching narrative remains that here is a coach fighting for his career. Foster and his players might be the only people who don’t see it that way; they’re just fighting to get another Test win against a very good and vastly experienced Springbok side. Exactly as it should be.
For that to happen, the All Blacks will have to scrum like their lives depend on it, deny turnover candy to Malcolm Marx, keep their discipline, withstand what will be massive pressure on their line-out, snuff out the aerial threat at the back, and catch and pass like men who haven’t been introduced to each other for the first time, as they get on to the team bus.
Sounds simple if you say it fast enough.
Better All Black selections have travelled to South Africa and come up empty. But a combination of choice and necessity, and a natural turn in the talent cycle that has served New Zealand so well over more than a decade, means that, for better or worse, this is the 23 that Foster has at his disposal.
This is one of those strange situations where some All Blacks fans are hoping for an All Blacks loss. They may well get their wish, but it is clear that Ian Foster and his army of 23 are very determined to disappoint them.
Rugby – The Roar