When did the rot in New Zealand Rugby begin? The causes, consequences and the solution
Written by Max Sharp.
New Zealand Rugby has always been famous for a succession plan.
We saw this as far back as the first-ever 1987 Rugby World Cup, when David Kirk stood in as All Blacks Captain for the injured Andy Dalton, to become the inaugural holder of the Webb Ellis Cup after the All Blacks defeated France in the inaugural final, by 29-9. The 25-man squad also saw then-Head Coach Brian Lochore, select Joe Stanley as the single player in his 30's, while 10 of the 25 players were yet to reach 25 years old.
Extended highlights of 1987 Rugby World Cup Final, published by World Rugby.
1988-2003 (Amateur to Professional Era)
This cohort of U-25's included Grant Fox, who went on to become the leading points-scorer in the tournament, as well as Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones and Zinzan Brooke, who would all go on to play in three Rugby World Cups, under Alex "Grizz" Wyllie and Laurie Mains.
While the John Hart era suffered an annus horribilis in 1998, the team recovered in time for the 1999 Rugby World Cup in spite of an upset against France. Despite huge improvements in the team who competed at the World Cup in the year I was born, Hart was replaced with Wayne Smith; himself replaced by John Mitchell after resigning.
Mitchell clearly had the talent to be the coach, having correctly trusted young guns such as Keven Mealamu, Mils Muliaina and the late Jerry Collins, to be key decision-makers in the team's spine, even in the tournament's knockout stages, while the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Ma'a Nonu in the squad too. However, Mitchell was pushed into the role too young, having been 39 years old upon his contract not being renewed post-2003; he had been an All Black himself, just 10 years earlier.
In came Steve Tew as CEO of New Zealand Rugby, with Graham "Ted" Henry as Head Coach, while Steve "Shag" Hansen and Wayne Smith were in as his assistants. Even with the greatest-ever All Blacks coach running the show with an annihilation of the 2005 British and Irish Lions, a past All Blacks coach and a past Wales coach as his assistants, things still wouldn't go right.
2007 Rugby World Cup (Continuity)
The All Blacks squad of 2007 may have had 1004 caps combined ahead of the tournament, but like many previous iterations, not the leadership cohesion built over a period of time. Richie McCaw, the captain, was still 26 years old, while Chris Jack was the only player with over 60 test caps.
When it came to crunch time, a lack of depth at First-Five was proven as Dan Carter made an early 56th minute exit from the quarter-final against France, injured. Nick Evans and Luke McAlister were unproven at 10 at the time, while the team had never practiced for a drop goal. Wayne Barnes, the referee, was highly inexperienced and the All Blacks lacked the leadership to play to his whistle; Richie McCaw's attempts to point out the infamous forward pass went awry, with Barnes 20m behind the pass, they needed an experienced captain to approach the referee.
The All Blacks' lack of leadership also saw an out-of-sync haka; they'd already been rattled before kickoff thanks to the French approach, while it was clear through McAlister's late attempt, also demonstrated the team had not prepared for a drop goal. After France made the comeback to win 20-18, most called for Robbie Deans, who was waiting in the wings after a successful reign with the Crusaders, to take charge of the All Blacks.
2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final highlights, as published by World Rugby.
After beginning all six World Cup cycles in history, with a change of Head Coach however, Steve Tew wondered if the "definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results", as German award-winning scientist Albert Einstein once said. What if Brian Lochore stayed beyond 1987? Tew realised that actually, it takes six years, rather than four, to prepare for a Rugby World Cup.
Tew opted to back Henry, Hansen and Smith, re-signing them to 2011, while Deans took over as coach of the Wallabies over in Australia.
2008-2011 (Henry Era)
It was wrong to re-sign Steve Hansen, who had previously won just two trophies as a Head Coach and experienced a 33.33% win rate as Head Coach of Wales. Robbie Deans should have come in as a new assistant on the basis of proven success, but Hansen was just one cog in a well-oiled machine.
With Henry, Hansen and Smith all fulfilling their contracts through to 2011, the team was able to build a high level of cohesion due to playing with each other for a long period of time. After bringing the All Blacks back to the number one-ranked rugby team in the world, Henry then knew he had found his World Cup-winning team. In 2009, he began to introduce second-choice players into the equation. While many called for Henry's head for particular losses, he was now happy to lose every now and again, in order to build towards the bigger picture.
By 2011, Henry knew exactly who his first-choice team was and more importantly, who his second-choice teams. As an extra precaution as World Cup preparation, Henry went as far as starting second-choice players throughout the Tri-Nations. Though this resulted in a 5-18 loss to South Africa and a 20-25 loss to the title-winning Australia, this was all worth it.
Depth built throughout 2008-2011 paid off, with Sam Whitelock supplanting Ali Williams at 5 during the World Cup, Zac Guildford's 4-try effort against Canada, Israel Dagg rising from second-choice fullback to star performer in the semi-final and finally, the fourth-choice first-five Stephen Donald, kicking a penalty to determine the 8-7 win in the World Cup Final against France, at Eden Park, 24 years after beating the same team at the same stadium, to win the 1987 Rugby World Cup.
The 2011 Rugby World Cup Final, as recounted by key participants.
2012-2015 (Hansen Era begins)
Henry retired as a Head Coach after 2011's victory, leading to Steve Tew opting to use a theme of "continuity" when selecting a new coach, who would be signed until the end of 2013. Steve Hansen was this particular man, but the "McCaw effect" as some branded it, allowed for further success in light of Hansen's previous coaching record; 33.33% as Wales coach.
While he gave test debuts to Julian Savea, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Charlie Faumuina, Dane Coles and Matt Todd, Hansen had selected selected players primarily based on his loyalty to them throughout his career. With plenty of 2011 Rugby World Cup winners sticking around from the Henry era, just a single draw and a single loss in 2012, alongside an unbeaten 2013, saw Hansen re-signed until 2017, for a British and Irish Lions tour.
The 2015 Rugby World Cup squad inherited five survivors of the 2007 effort (Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter and Tony Woodcock) as well as Ma'a Nonu, who had attended 2003's World Cup alongside McCaw, Mealamu and Carter. 15 of the 31-man squad had competed in 2011's Rugby World Cup, while placing on their jersey's depth chart, determined every starter in the team's spine, aside from Ben Smith taking the place of the injured Israel Dagg at fullback. While Hansen was Head Coach, the spirit of the Henry era lived on through those 15/31 players. The All Blacks went back-to-back as World Cup champions, to farewell eight players, including McCaw, the captain.
2015 Rugby World Cup Final highlights, uploaded by World Rugby.
2016-2018 (Rot sets in)
Although Hansen's 2016 All Blacks squad to face Wales in a three-test series included seven uncapped players, the Welsh team were far too tired to win. With former All Black, Warren Gatland, in charge, Wales went home losing all three tests. Coming off the high of winning 2015, the All Blacks were a team with a win streak, while starting Beauden Barrett (who had usually been used as a fullback off the bench for the All Blacks in the past) at 10 caused many defence lines to suffer indecision.
The team, however, had began the World Cup cycle with five players in their 30's, this included Kieran Read, who had become the new captain. Time is linear and the team was only going to get older. With plenty of All Blacks in fact prolonging their careers for a chance at facing the 2017 British and Irish Lions, who would also be coached by Gatland, it became a little bit harder for Hansen to build depth. Having failed to foresee that several players had done so, Hansen became complacent. This is when the rot, mentioned in the article's title, began.
Though he was Ireland's Head Coach, fellow Kiwi Joe Schmidt, is an analyst at heart. Schmidt took notice of tactics well-past their expiry date that the All Blacks were using, famously guiding Ireland to their first-ever victory over the All Blacks; a 40-29 score. While the All Blacks remained a powerful name around the globe, the era of broadband internet had began to allow analysts to dissect opponents' tactics less than 24 hours after a match.
Ireland's first-ever victory over the All Blacks, as shown in the highlights.
Hansen needed to build on what his team had achieved in 2015. He did not however, the Lions turned up in New Zealand as a team who didn't fear the All Blacks. Gatland took a very similar approach around building towards the series, to what Graham Henry had once done in 2011. While the All Blacks were able to get a comprehensive 30-15 win to begin the series, the nerves of steel from Owen Farrell, vision from Liam Williams and the greatest ruck speed of all time from Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadgh Furlong, Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones, put pressure on the All Blacks.
While Sonny Bill Williams had been red-carded for his shoulder to Anthony Watson's head, there was still a chance to win the series. With this huge pressure from up-front, the Lions had the psychological edge. This psychological edge saw Beauden Barrett's poor goal-kicking give Owen Farrell the chance to level the score, with just 3 minutes left in the third test. The Lions series ended in a 1-1 draw, though Hansen's contract was extended to 2019.
The 2017 British and Irish Lions Tour marked the end of the All Blacks' greatest-ever era.
I was one of the early thinkers, who was suspecting that this rot had begun. From the day the 2019 Rugby World Cup draw was made, I'd been ringing the alarm bells for a World Cup semi-final loss to Eddie Jones' regenerated England, who had been knocked out of the 2015 edition's pool stages under Stuart Lancaster as Head Coach.
While my comments based on match-day analysis and statistics across Facebook, Stuff, NZ Herald and YouTube, were brushed off as ludicrous conspiracy theories, a 2018 loss to South Africa determined again by Barrett's goal kicking, had proven Steve Hansen had fallen into the same mindset, as the previous CEOs of New Zealand Rugby.
Hansen was forgetting that "definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results", as Steve Tew remembered in 2011. While England lost by a single point to the All Blacks at Twickenham on 2018's end-of-year tour, Joe Schmidt's Ireland beat the All Blacks for just a second time in history one week later. At this moment, I knew there was no way back.
2019 Rugby World Cup
The build-up to 2019's Rugby World Cup was a roller-coaster ride. With the Rugby Championship ending in a 16-16 draw to South Africa, then the All Blacks' record losing margin being drawn in a 26-47 defeat to Australia; after a red card to Scott Barrett. Hansen, having been very outwardly conservative through his entire coaching career, finally admitted he was wrong for relying on the old heads for so long and recognised that radical changes were needed.
2019's defeat at Optus Stadium, Perth, equalled the All Blacks' worst-ever losing margin of 21 points.
7 players from the 26-47 loss were dropped for the second Bledisloe, including 108-test veteran Owen Franks; who had been out-of-form for years. Since returning from his 2017 achilles heel tear, Franks had run just 15 metres from 40 carries in 13 test matches, while the All Blacks' scrum had lacked dominance in this period of time. Also gone was one-dimensional crash-ball running centre, Ngani Laumape, who failed to alter his game to suit the coaches' game plan. It was clear Ben Smith was a spent force too; he only remained in the World Cup squad due to commanding the majority of minutes in the fullback depth chart.
As controversial as this is to say, Hansen's team selection for the 2019 Rugby World Cup knockout stages, was spot on. But without the foresight to give these correct players an appropriate share of their jersey's depth chart, England's inevitable dominance over the All Blacks resulted in Kieran Read being knocked out of the World Cup, 7-19, on his 34th birthday. In perhaps their nation's greatest-ever performance, England ended the threepeat hopes and the New Zealand public, normally looking to find someone to blame for a loss, conceded that England deserved to win.
Rugby's greatest-ever semi-final? Highlights of England's 2019 win over the All Blacks.
The World Cup prediction based on match-day analysis and statistical reviewing my me, a then-19-year-old nobody, had somehow, come to fruition. With Sonny Bill Williams, Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock the only survivors from the Graham Henry era, this was Hansen's team. The consequences of picking a man who had the 33.33% win rate as Wales coach, finally turned up after a delayed onset.
The rot in New Zealand Rugby began to set in during 2016, was finally apparent for all to see, as incoming CEO Mark Robinson, himself a former All Black, appointed Ian Foster as the All Blacks' new coach through to 2021.
Although he had been Hansen's attack coach since 2012, Foster had never won a trophy as a Head Coach, while his win rate as the Chiefs' coach was just 50%. New Zealand Rugby failed to reach out to Warren Gatland, Jamie Joseph, Dave Rennie, or even Vern Cotter, while Joe Schmidt had announced his retirement from being a Head Coach. Foster was chosen over Scott Robertson; though "Razor" had a stellar record with the Crusaders, it had only lasted for 3 years and the interviewing panel didn't believe they had enough evidence of success from Robertson.
Much like Steve Hansen before him, Foster had been promoted from within the All Blacks' camp. The famed New Zealand Rugby succession plan around players was extended into coaches, but this type of succession plan had a finite lifespan. While team cohesion is the ultimate way to win a World Cup, team cohesion eventually builds up to predictability. Under Foster, this was inevitable.
2020-2022 (Foster Era)
Despite winning just three from six tests in a shortened 2020 season, Foster's contract was extended to 2023 after big wins against Tonga and Fiji, to start the 2021 season. Foster's contract was extended in spite of a first-ever loss to Argentina. Word has it that the players wanted certainty around the team's long-term goal and coach.
Test matches against genuine threats did not turn up until Foster's contract had been extended and with the new-found game time against South Africa, Ireland and France, came the exposure of Foster's tactics not moving on from the Hansen era. The All Blacks had moved on from the crash-ball centre and were picking mobile props, but the same attacking moves from the 2015 World Cup were still in use, while all other international teams aside from Australia, had improved over a six-year period.
Another symptom of the rot in New Zealand Rugby at this time, was the Black Ferns' horror end-of-year tour for 2021, in which Head Coach, Glenn Moore, was accused of bullying players, while the team ended up suffering three of their worst four defeats in history, including a record losing margin, of 15-56 against England.
Similar rumours arrived regarding the All Blacks when they returned home from Europe, for the off-season; though they were not as highly publicised - players did not publicly speak on the matter, though an internal review by New Zealand Rugby found senior players did not wish to be coached by Foster's assistant, John Plumtree; the All Blacks were playing for the jersey, but not the coaches. This was the very issue facing the Black Ferns.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster heads to the changing rooms at Eden Park ahead of a clash against Ireland. Photo: Max Sharp.
After a long duration of controversy, Glenn Moore resigned as Black Ferns coach, with Wayne Smith, a far better option, came in and went undefeated during the 2022 Pacific Four Series. The rejuvenation of the Black Ferns, through returning to the team's DNA, proves the rot in New Zealand Rugby can indeed be discarded and replaced.
Ian Foster however, refused to do the right thing and step down as All Blacks coach, despite his claims of being accountable. A 2022 mid-year test series against Ireland ended in defeat; Ireland not only beat the All Blacks on home soil twice in a row, but the All Blacks lost a three-test series for the first time in the professional era, as captain Sam Cane was substituted at Sky Stadium.
As tensions began to boil over in the All Blacks camp, Foster finally released John Plumtree as forwards coach, as well as Brad Mooar as attack coach, after pressure from CEO Mark Robinson, who blasted the series loss as "unacceptable". It was not Foster's mediocre win rate that was the problem, but his team's lack of improvement ever since 2016, when he was attack coach himself.
After a 10-26 loss to begin the 2022 Rugby Championship, Foster finally made changes to the All Blacks' biggest problems, the props and first-five. The lack of a coherent game-manager at 10 and lazy ruck speed from prop had been apparent for some time and for 2022's second test against South Africa, at Ellis Park Stadium, Beauden Barrett was dropped to the bench, with Richie Mo'unga re-gaining the 10 jersey after losing it while away on parental leave during 2021. Samisoni Taukei'aho and Codie Taylor swapped jerseys as starting and reserve hooker, while huge changes happened at prop.
Crusaders pivot Richie Mo'unga has been a revelation at 10 under Joe Schmidt as Attack Coach. Photo: Max Sharp.
Ethan de Groot, not wanted for the mid-year Ireland series, replaced George Bower at loosehead prop, with Bower dropping to the bench in place of the injured Ofa Tu'ungafasi and departed Karl Tu'inukuafe. At tighthead prop, Angus Ta'avao was cut from the entire squad altogether, with Tyrel Lomax starting in the 3 jersey after being dropped for the Ireland series. With Nepo Laulala also injured, in came debutant, Fletcher Newell.
With an actual 10 and far superior props, the Ellis Park match saw David Havili's late try save Foster's career, while a try to Scott Barrett put the icing on the cake against South Africa. Foster's contract was not indeed terminated, while Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt replaced Plumtree and Mooar respectively. Ryan and Mooar are now the other selectors for the team; Grant Fox has now finished his role as an All Blacks selector.
Brad Mooar, pictured congratulating Ardie Savea on a victory, was released from his contract as the All Blacks' Attack Coach after a series defeat to Ireland. Photo: Max Sharp.
While hiccups came against Argentina in Christchurch and almost, against Australia in Melbourne, the All Blacks came back to win The Rugby Championship, having improved for the first time since 2016, with the new assistant coaches, new props and new first-five; while Taukei'aho's elevation into being a regular starter also proved immense.