'We’re desperate to perform against South Africa'
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: After keeping his job in spite of his side’s historic series loss to Ireland, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster’s focus has now turned to the Springboks.
Looking to bounce back from a groundbreaking series defeat at the hands of the Irish, Foster has an enormous task broadening on the horizon in the form of a two-test tour of South Africa to open his side’s Rugby Championship campaign.
Few All Blacks teams have endured as a tough start to a test season as this current group, which failed to fire in their three-test series against what is now the world’s top-ranked side.
Now they must respond by restoring pride in the national jersey and the All Blacks brand in their upcoming away matches against the reigning world champions in expectedly hostile environments in Nelspruit and Johannesburg.
Even more challenging is that the All Blacks must produce far better results in the face of intense public backlash, which has stemmed from the series loss to Ireland – New Zealand’s first against the men from the Emerald Isle on Kiwi soil.
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The series defeat was also their first in New Zealand since 1994, and with four losses from their last five Tests, the All Blacks currently sit in a worst-ever World Rugby ranking of fourth place.
As such, Foster has it all to play for in South Africa as he looks to repay the faith shown in him by New Zealand Rugby, who have opted to retain him as All Blacks boss – for the time being – despite immense external pressure not to do so.
With his job hanging in the balance, the next two tests shape as make-or-break fixtures for Foster, and the man in question is well aware of the situation at hand.
“We’re desperate to perform against South Africa,” Foster told media on Friday following the announcement of his Rugby Championship squad.
“And you have to be, but it’d be much nicer hearing us talk about a great performance over there rather than what we’re putting up with now.
“There’s a lot riding on it, and what’s riding on it is that we want to get our games going to the levels that we want, and that we want our fanbase and our country to be proud of us, clearly, but what an exciting challenge.
“We’re going to South Africa, we’ve got two tests in this Rugby Championship, we’ve got both tests away against South Africa.
“Couldn’t be harder in many ways, but when your back is against the wall a little bit, then this is a great place for the All Blacks to be, and we’ve got to respond.”
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That much is easier said than done, though, especially when the Springboks head into the upcoming matches on the back of a three-test series win over Wales.
Although they dropped the second test against the Welsh after fielding an overhauled and inexperienced team, the Springboks acquitted themselves well in the final test, comfortably accounting for the tourists to back-up their tense series-opening win.
South Africa’s ability to respond to defeat and grind out hard-fought victories was a far cry from what the All Blacks showcased against Ireland, as was the dominance of their forward pack compared to that of New Zealand’s.
Having surveyed the success of the Springboks over Wales from afar, Foster highlighted the battle up front as a particular area that the All Blacks will need to win if they are to reap their desired rewards in South Africa.
“Clearly made a lot of changes in that second test, and you could see them resting some players, but building through that third test,” Foster said of Jacques Nienaber’s side.
“They’re physical, they’ve got some areas of their game where they really are focused on, particularly around the mauling game, the driving game, and that’s an area that hurt us in that third test, so we’ve got some clear areas we’ve got to improve.”
The inclusions of Highlanders duo Ethan de Groot and Shannon Frizell at the expense of prop Karl Tu’inukuafe and No.8 Pita Gus Sowakula may go some way to helping the All Blacks match the physicality of the Springboks forwards.
However, even if De Groot and Frizell do feature in South Africa, vastly-improved efforts from across the entire All Blacks squad will be required in order to achieve the goals Foster needs to ensure his position as All Blacks head coach remains secure.
“There’s no doubt I’m under pressure, but can I just say I’m always under pressure, and I’ve always felt that pressure,” Foster said.
“External people will try to intensify that pressure, but it doesn’t change the fact that, as an All Blacks coach, you live in that world all the time.
“Does it hurt? Yes it does. It does mean that the key thing for me is to make sure everything I do is about ensuring that we have robust processes to make sure we have got the right people sitting in the right seats.”
The All Blacks and Springboks will play their first test against each other at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on August 6 before squaring off again at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on August 13.
By Alex McLeod, Rugbypass