Super Rugby performances falsely gauge Foster
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: It would be charitable to describe the public’s reaction to Ian Foster’s appointment as head coach of the All Blacks as lukewarm.
That’s somewhat understandable.
Scott Robertson, the only other serious applicant for the role, has been at the forefront of a Crusaders resurgence.
Robbie Deans, the last Crusaders coach to miss out on the All Blacks head coach position, built a legacy with the red-and-blacks, winning five titles between 2000 and 2008.
Todd Blackadder took over in 2009 and despite having the best Super Rugby squad on paper, couldn’t once get the Crusaders over the line during his eight-year tenure.
Robertson’s appointment in 2017 saw immediate results. However, with the Crusaders managing three successive championship runs.
Robertson may have inherited a team laden with national representatives but some of his best performers over the last three years have been the men that weren’t even in consideration for a spot in the All Blacks prior to Robertson’s occupancy.
Andrew Makalio, Quinten Strange, Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Will Jordan didn’t have a cap between them before Robertson took charge. Richie Mo’unga, New Zealand’s premier flyhalf, had just one season under his belt.
Those men have been pivotal for the Crusaders in their three title runs and will likely have a similar impact for the All Blacks over the coming years.
Robertson also coached the New Zealand Under-20 side to a world title in 2015 and Canterbury to provincial titles in 2013 and 2015.
Compare that to Ian Foster’s record as head coach, and it’s easy to say why so many people were behind Robertson getting the All Blacks gig.
Foster’s first major appointment was with Waikato in 2002. He guided the team to a top of the table finish in the NPC but his charges fell in the final to Auckland.
A year later, Waikato lost in the semifinals to Wellington.
Two solid seasons [without any silverware, mind you] as a provincial head coach was enough to earn Foster the top dog role with the Chiefs, a Super Rugby side that had struggled for even mid-table finishes in the years preceding.
So began an eight-year reign that came to an end when Foster was promoted to assistant coach of the All Blacks.
In Foster’s time with the Chiefs, he managed just two finals appearances – in 2004, when they were bested by the Brumbies, and in 2009, when they were destroyed by the Bulls.
Robertson has managed more finals appearances in just three seasons with the Crusaders.
That doesn’t exactly paint a fair picture of Foster’s tenure with the Chiefs, however.
“In those days, it was a regional competition,” Foster told RugbyPass after he was announced as the new All Blacks coach.
“You basically lived and died on the resources of the provinces underneath you.”
Foster’s final year in charge, in 2011, saw the Chiefs select just seven players from outside their catchment.
Under the new contract model in New Zealand, franchises can select players from any province in the country, regardless of which Super Rugby team that province falls under.
The Chiefs 2020 squad includes 13 players from outside the region. That’s almost twice the number that Foster had access to. If you include Taranaki players, who were part of the Hurricanes franchises prior to 2013, the number balloons up to 22.
More pertinently, the seven that Foster selected in 2011 were players that had been passed over by other franchises in the initial contracting round.
While Foster is never going to make excuses for himself, it’s clear that the playing field wasn’t exactly even when he was in charge of the Chiefs.
“I was a big supporter of that [new contracting model],” said Foster.
“It didn’t fit my timetable in there, but the year after I left, I loved seeing the Chiefs play on an equal footing from a contracting point of view – how they were able to go out and sign Sonny Bill, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden and a few others.
“I think it’s produced more equality across our franchises.”
The other big change we’ve seen with Super Rugby sides is the coaching set-up.
During Foster’s time with the Chiefs, he was assisted by the likes Farrel Temata and Tony Hanks – not exactly household coaching names.
As with the players, coaches were largely selected from within the region, which made it difficult to bring in an assistant with any significant experience – that put a lot of the onus on the head coach.
“Your head coach basically had to be a specialist in a whole lot of things,” said Foster on his time in charge of the Chiefs. “I was a young coach then, I was still just learning.”
Compare that to the assistant coaches that have done the rounds in Super Rugby over the last decade and it’s easy to see how things have changed.
When Dave Rennie took over from Foster in 2012, he was assisted by Wayne Smith, Tom Coventry and Andrew Strawbridge.
At that point in time, Strawbridge had already been involved in coaching set-ups with the Chiefs, North Harbour and the New Zealand Under-20 side for a number of years.
Coventry had a similar rap sheet, coaching Hawke’s Bay, the U20s and the New Zealand Schools sides.
Smith, who really needs no introduction, had previously coached the Crusaders, Benetton, Northampton and the All Blacks.
Rennie’s modern coaching team, which isn’t hugely dissimilar to many of the others that are currently employed in New Zealand franchises, is in a different league to what Foster had access to.
The head coach is no longer required to be a jack of all trades. Obviously they need a solid understanding of most aspects of the game, but they’re no longer responsible for every aspect of the gameplan.
Colin Cooper, who was coach for the Chiefs for the 2018 and 2019 season, said as much when he stepped down for next year.
“The role of the head coach has evolved so much over the past five or six years. My passion is ‘hands-on’ on-the-field coaching, but with bigger playing numbers and more staff involved these days, I am getting taken further and further away from my passion.”
The technical aspect of coaching, while still important, isn’t the be-all and end-all. Individuals aren’t – and shouldn’t be – expected to do everything. Instead, it’s the coaching team as a whole which can dictate whether a squad is successful or not.
The right team makes all the difference – which is why coaching teams were emphasised so much in the lead up to the interviews for the All Blacks head coaching role.
Foster’s resources as a Super Rugby coach were severely limited compared to what’s available now, which is why his eight years with the Chiefs are considerably less important than the subsequent eight years he’s spent with the All Blacks.
The irony is that under the current Super Rugby model, which sees the top 53 percent of teams make the quarterfinals, Foster’s Chiefs side would likely have a few more finals appearances under their belt – and possibly even titles.
“It hurts we didn’t win a title,” reflected Foster.
“Our reality is I think we did some great things, we made a semi, made a final – I know we did that. We also brought a lot of young players through.
“We finished in the top half of the championship in six out of my eight years but because in those days you had to get four out of 12, four out of 14 or you didn’t make the playoffs. So everything else was a fail.”
Lassen.co.nz tracks the form of the Super Rugby sides using the same method that World Rugby uses to rank the international teams. In four of the six years that Foster’s Chiefs finished in the top half of the competition (and would have made the play-offs under the current system), they were ranked in the top four teams based on form after the final round of the regular season. Could they have won the competition if they’d been granted a place in the play-offs?
Perhaps that last point might be grasping at straws, but the overall case is that Foster’s time at the Chiefs shouldn’t be considered as unsuccessful as many are keen to suggest it was – and then there’s still Foster’s largely positive eight years in the national set-up which needs to be considered too.
The All Blacks won the 2015 World Cup, came third in the 2019 iteration (losing just one game along the way and besting the eventual champions) and had an 87 percent win rate over Foster’s time as an assistant coach.
The results alone are compelling, but there’s also the fact that Foster already has an understanding of the job at hand, having been a part of the set-up for so long. He already has a relationship with the Super Rugby coaches as well as with many of the players themselves – players who, according to incoming New Zealand Rugby (NZR) CEO Mark Robinson, lavished praise on the Waikato man.
This isn’t all to say that Foster is definitely the man for the job, it’s simply showing that there’s no reason to write off Foster – as some have already done.
Steve Hansen has been the most successful coach of the All Blacks in 50 years. He’s the most successful All Blacks coach of all time if you only compare coaches that have been in charge for more than 14 matches.
Given that Hansen had similar levels of success to Foster prior to his appointment as an assistant in the national set-up, expectations should be high for the incoming head coach.
Super Rugby isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all when it comes to deciding who will make a great international coach. It certainly shouldn’t be excluded altogether, of course, but Foster’s lack of ‘success’ with the Chiefs should really be taken with a grain of salt – especially given it’s been eight years since he left his post.
The professional rugby landscape is changing in New Zealand and solid coaching teams are now considerably more important than just the top dog. Ian Foster has been judged by NZR to have assembled a squad that is the best fit to take over from Steve Hansen and his assistants – and there’s very little reason to assume the All Blacks’ success won’t continue as it has in the past.
By Tom Vinicombe, @RugbyPass
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