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Last year proved to be historic for the All Blacks and not in a good way: three Test defeats was their worst run of form since 2009.
Most nations, of course, would consider 12 Test wins out of 15 in a year to be a triumph, but the All Blacks operate to different standards. As they prepare to meet an Ireland side who harbour genuine World Cup ambitions, and with head coach Ian Foster, his assistants John Plumtree and Scott Macleod plus potential starting centres David Havili and Jack Goodhue all testing positive for Covid this week, New Zealand's mood threatens to be as dark as their shirts.
So, is the decline terminal? Foster, speaking after the 40-25 defeat to a blossoming French side last November, pointed out that Australia and South Africa also suffered multiple defeats in 2021. He also stressed that New Zealand had spent a draining 12 weeks on tour before that trip to Paris.
And yet there has always been a slight sense of uncertainty about the All Blacks under Foster. They may be scoring more tries in this World Cup cycle - 5.86 per game to 5.13, slightly skewed by beating Tonga 101-0 and scoring 60 points against Fiji in back-to-back Tests - but the All Blacks' carries, line breaks and offloads are all down.
In total, they have lost five out of 21 Tests since Foster succeeded Steve Hansen. During the previous Rugby World Cup cycle - excluding the World Cup itself - they lost six out of 47; going back to 2011-15, again excluding the World Cup, it was three out of 47. They are numbers which help explain why doubts are creeping in.
The continued success of Scott Robertson at the Crusaders hasn’t helped Foster’s cause. When Foster was appointed Robertson had already revived the Crusaders and won three Super Rugby titles on the trot, unearthing a number of future All Blacks in Richie Mo’unga, Goodhue and Havili. Since then the Crusaders have won two Super Rugby Aotearoa titles and a Super Rugby Pacific title this year too. Essentially, put the Crusaders in any competition under Robertson and they will be drinking out of the trophy come the end.
Robertson’s lack of Test coaching experience was cited as a factor behind him missing out to Foster in 2019 but his continued success with Crusaders has left New Zealand Rugby facing a conundrum of how to keep your most successful domestic coach in the country while someone else has the top job.
“Look, I will coach in France one day,” Robertson told Telegraph Sport back in 2018 after the Crusaders’ first title. Five more trophies later - and five more breakdances, Robertson’s signature celebration - and that clamour for him to coach the All Blacks has only grown louder. NZR renewed Foster’s deal in 2021 through to the World Cup, while Robertson is on a contract with the Crusaders until 2024 which crucially includes a break clause for him to leave if he is overlooked for the All Blacks role after France 2023. If NZR do not appoint Robertson in 2023 there will be lucrative offers pouring in from all over the world.
— Ultimate Rugby (@ultimaterugby) May 8, 2021
So, what can Foster do in the interim? One gripe last autumn was that in both of the games against Ireland and France the All Blacks started sluggishly. James Lowe’s try (after Codie Taylor’s yellow card) gave Ireland the early lead in Dublin, while scores from Paeto Mauvaka and Romain Ntamack had France ahead 14-6 after 13 minutes in Paris. It was not until the third quarter that New Zealand started to put pressure on France, scoring three tries in 13 minutes when New Zealand were “confrontational and direct”, as Foster put it.
Ripping into Ireland from the off will have been a focal point of New Zealand’s preparations ahead of the first Test at Eden Park. The Maori All Blacks showed the way on Wednesday, blowing away Ireland’s midweek side with four first-half tries from which their opponents could not recover.
Another main point of concern last year was that against South Africa, Ireland and France, the All Blacks were second best physically. Whereas New Zealand won five turnovers in their thrashing of Wales in Cardiff, they could only manage two apiece against Ireland and France, crushed by physically quick ruck speed ahead of tries for Caelan Doris…
…and Ntamack in particular.
All of the messages out of the All Blacks camp this summer have been that the physical aspect of their game is about to go up a few gears, and how they fare against Ireland will be a good gauge to see if progress has been made.
"We know we've got the skill, we know we've got the power but our physicality is going to have to go up a couple of notches this year," Plumtree said. Similarly, captain Sam Cane said his side would be focused on "dominating collisions and winning small inches.”
The selection of Pita Gus Sowakula, the powerful uncapped Chiefs No 8, appears to have been made with that in mind, but given the Covid disruption and the fact that the All Blacks haven't played since November, this really is Ireland’s best opportunity to pick up a first ever Test win in New Zealand, particularly given Ireland have won three out of the last five meetings. But if history has taught us anything, it is to never write off the All Blacks.