There Will Be Blood: What’s really wrong with the All Blacks

Analysis – New Zealand Rugby’s backroom staff must face the fire for the All Black’s recent sub-par performances and the apparent lack of cohesion within the team.

All Blacks backroom staff: coach Ian Foster, assistant coach John Plumtree, mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka and manager Darren Shands.
Photo: Photosport

“An All Black empire is crumbling!” – the words that rang out at full time from radio commentator Elliott Smith’s call of the last defeat certainly were dramatic, that’s for sure. But Smith’s on point script for what would happen if the All Blacks slumped to a series loss to Ireland wasn’t just about what was happening on the field. He knew, along with everyone else in the Sky Stadium media box that night, that this fall was just as much about the way the team was run, handled and promoted as it was about scrums and lineouts.

This was, of course, around 12 hours before the now infamous no show by Ian Foster at the traditional Sunday press conference. It’s important to note that this isn’t actually the first time this has happened, even within the current regime. On last season’s disastrous northern hemisphere, after demanding the media be available to attend Zoom calls at 6am three times a week, a press conference on the Monday (also a public holiday) before the test against Wales was abruptly called off. No apology or explanation was ever given.

The entire media experience on that tour was pretty abysmal though – even by All Black standards. More or less every excuse was made to keep the Zoom calls to the absolute minimum time, with mythical bus journeys blamed for the need to hit the red Leave button. The irony that Zoom calls should have been making them more accessible rather than less (you can take a laptop on a bus, or anywhere for that matter) was clearly something the All Blacks were oblivious to.

Sir Steve Hansen ducked his responsibilities after the largest defeat of his tenure, in 2019 in Perth. After the Wallabies had handed the All Blacks a 47-29 spanking the night before, the 9am call time was mysteriously moved to 10am, then 11am, then once media arrived at the hotel Hansen was nowhere to be seen. The fact that the flight back to Auckland was at 1pm was a little bit too much of a coincidence.

While All Black media relations have been generally poor since, well, forever, the empire within should be the one under the most scrutiny. Enough has been said about Ian Foster, mainly because it’s just a louder rendition of what was being said before. The same goes for his coaching staff. John Plumtree’s calls for more physicality from the All Black forwards has become a running joke, the circumstances around how NZ Rugby paid out Welsh club Scarlets to get Brad Mooar out of his contract is now even more laughable, while Andrew Strawbridge’s addition to the coaching team hasn’t added anything. Anything good, anyway.

But it doesn’t stop there. What exactly has mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka been doing for the last three seasons to justify ongoing employment? If there is one area where the All Blacks are being let down it’s how they have started games, the last six have seen them conceded leads very early. If the All Blacks aren’t fired up enough by pulling on the jersey, running out in front of thousands and doing the haka, what mental skills are they even being taught?

If anything, they seem to have been completely discarded. Go back to 2016, the first time the Irish beat the All Blacks in Chicago. The backlash was severe when the two sides met two weeks later in Dublin, with the Irish crushed with terrible fury off their own field in an act of All Black revenge (also being almost certainly Sam Cane’s best test performance). Where was this attitude during the latest series? In fact, where has it been since that day?

This isn’t a case of the All Blacks becoming bad players overnight, because there’s enough in the meagre output of the All Blacks in that series to suggest that a lot of them are still very much in form. In Ardie Savea and Will Jordan’s cases, they seem to be actually getting a lot better.

Is it the environment they are in that prevents them from being a cohesive unit on the park? Manager Darren Shand has been in the job for almost 20 years. To put that in perspective, the guy he took over from was the infamous Andrew ‘Colonel Cuddles’ Martin. Shand isn’t alone, either, much of the polo shirt gang have been part of the furniture in the All Black set up for a long, long time – to the point where you have to wonder whether the appointment of Foster in the first place was the most convenient way for the entire operation to avoid any potential scrutiny from a governing body changing rapidly around them.

The issue, though, is that it’s completely unsustainable. Especially with the ridiculous way Foster was elevated to the role and the results that have come in since. The decline and fall of this team, much like the Roman Empire that Smith was alluding to, isn’t just because of one thing. It’s the sum of many issues, which need to be examined, put right or simply biffed.

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