The exacting standard to which New Zealand rugby fans hold All Blacks coaches is evident again at the end of a turbulent 2020 season in which the national team played only six test matches.
The All Blacks retained the Bledisloe Cup for the 18th straight year and likely clinched the Tri-Nations title with Saturday’s 38-0 win over Argentina at Newcastle.
But fans likely would give new head coach Ian Foster only a probationary pass mark at the end of his first season in charge. The All Blacks finished the year with three wins, two losses and a draw — a poor record by their high standards.
Foster’s job might have been in danger if the All Blacks had lost again on Saturday, sustaining three losses in a row for the first time in 22 years. The All Blacks’ win by five tries to nil might have alleviated some of that pressure on Foster and allowed him to go to the end of the year with his job secure for the moment.
“We didn’t lose belief in what we were doing,” Foster said. “This has been a big few weeks but the guys are still determined to play and I felt we got the formula right today.
“They’re a proud team, they play with a lot of passion. It’s been a big few days for their country with the passing of an icon (Diego Maradona). We knew they would bring plenty of attitude, and we saw that in the first half.
“The loss two weeks ago still hurts but tonight goes a long way to fixing that. We’ve got to remind ourselves we were playing for a trophy today and we’ll see what happens next week.”
Some fans who were concerned Foster wasn’t the best candidate when he was appointed last December to replace World Cup-winning head coach Steve Hansen likely will not be fully appeased. Others now may be willing to defer judgement.
The All Blacks managed on Saturday to repair some of the problems that were evident in their first-ever loss to Argentina two weeks ago. Their set pieces were solid, they were more efficient at breakdowns, they carried more strongly and bent the gain line and were able to move the ball into outside channels, which they couldn’t do in Sydney when they lost 25-15.
But the performance wasn’t flawless and Argentina fielded a weaker team than in Sydney. The Argentina defense was much better than the score line suggests and the Pumas were still extremely effective in isolating ball carriers.
New Zealand had almost 75% of possession but managed only one try in the first half. The score line ballooned when replacement Will Jordan was gifted two tries from Argentina errors in a two-minute spell in the middle of the second half. A try to lock Patrick Tuipulotu almost five minutes after the fulltime siren also made the All Blacks’ win look more comprehensive than it was.
The performances of scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flyhalf Richie Mo’unga in organizing the All Blacks attack were spotty and New Zealand should have scored far more from the advantages of possession and territory it enjoyed. It yielded easy yards around the fringes in a defensive performance which wasn’t as perfect as the scoreless result suggested and its kicking game needs a radar.
There are still problems of selection that Foster will have to confront next year. Beauden Barrett isn’t playing well at fullback and his brother Jordie is not being seen to his best advantage on the right wing.
On the other hand Akira Ioane is very new to test rugby but seems to offer the best option New Zealand has had on the blindside flank since the retirement of Jerome Kaino. He brings a hardness the All Blacks backrow recently has lacked.
Scott Barrett was much better at lock than Foster might have hoped and could become a regular partner for veteran Sam Whitelock if he can keep his discipline. Nepo Laulala improved the All Blacks scrum stepping into the vacancy at tighthead prop left by the suspended Ofa Tuungafasi and a fully-fit Dane Coles is clearly New Zealand’s No. 1 hooker.
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