Rugby

Ian Foster - good enough for NZ Rugby

Jim Kayes says Ian Foster was a good steady first-five for Waikato who could make a good steady All Black head coach.

It’s evolution, not revolution; and it’s hardly surprising.

This is New Zealand Rugby we are talking about, the same organisation that quietly appointed a member of its board to be it’s next chief executive.

Little wonder Mark Robinson was on the panel that decided Steve Hansen’s assistant should replace him as head coach of the All Blacks.

Ian Foster has a two-year gig and is the third successive head coach who hasn’t played for the famous team.

He was always the favourite, despite the semifinal loss to England at the World Cup - because all the talk of other coaches dropping out and that it was an embarrassingly short list of contenders, ignored the inherent conservativeness of NZR.

Scott Roberton may have been the people’s choice but the 45-year-old surfer from Tauranga who breakdances when his teams win titles (and they have won plenty) was a square peg for NZR’s round hole.

He was the radical’s choice and it could be argued that having had largely the same people involved in the All Blacks for 15 years, something radical was required.

The NZR is as far from radical as it comes.

Instead the panellists have predictably gone for safety, for a known quantity, for a continuation of a coaching dynasty that began under Graham Henry in 2004 and continued under Hansen in 2012 and that has been, it must be said, pretty successful.

They’ve won two World Cups and lost two, beaten and drawn with the British and Irish Lions and dominated the game whether playing in the Rugby Championship or on their November tours.

It speaks volumes for their sustained success that defeats still attract huge attention because they are so few and usually so far between.

Things went massively awry in 2007 when the All Blacks were knocked out of the World Cup in the quarterfinals but when Henry convinced NZR that he, Hansen and Wayne Smith were still the best options, Foster was always in the box seat, despite his group's loss to England in Yokohama.

Foster, 54, has remained silent on his head coaching aspirations until today when he acknowledged it was a huge privilege to be named as head coach.

But Hansen made it clear he favoured continuity in the role and argued that those calling for a refresh would still get that under Foster.

That’s because others in the coaching and management team are leaving too and Foster will bring in at least three new assistants, one of whom is expected to be Hurricanes head coach John Plumtree.

Hansen also argues Foster is his own man, he’s not a Hansen clone and he will take the All Blacks in a different direction.

That remains to be seen.

Foster is certainly not an overwhelming favourite with the public and it will be interesting to see how he copes with the pressure if he doesn’t enjoy early success.

He has witnessed, from close range, the white-hot scrutiny that goes with the job and as, Wayne Smith found out, some people are better suited to being a few steps outside the intense spotlight that goes with being head coach of the All Blacks.

Foster is a good bloke and an interesting fella to deal with. He has a great sense of humour and can be as cheeky and funny as Hansen.

He is intelligent and thinks carefully before he speaks.

Interviewing him for television is unsettling, as there will almost always be a (in TV terms) lengthy pause before he answers questions as he works through what he wants to say.

Dealing with the media, which is a huge part of the job, he is more likely to bark where Hansen bit, but can be just as fun and engaging when things are going well.

His detractors point to his limited success with the Chiefs, when he took them to the final just once in more than 100 games in charge, as evidence he should never have got the job.

Those same critics probably said the same thing when he was named assistant coach.

Hansen and All Blacks great Grant Fox, who became a selector when Foster came on as an assistant coach in 2012, say Foster is a massively improved coach since those days with the Chiefs.

Cory Jane once told me Foster is the best coach he played under and there are plenty of others who praise his abilities.

What’s not yet known is whether Foster has the ruthless edge required to succeed.

Head coaches need to know when to cuddle and when to cuff, when a player needs a pat on the back or a kick up the bum, when a quiet word is needed or a public dressing down.

They have to be parental and also be pricks, operating in that weird world where players are mates that may need to be dropped.

Foster is Waikato’s most capped player with 148 games and he has his photo on the wall in the tunnel at Waikato Stadium. But he was never an All Black.

He wasn’t as flash as Frano Botica or as polished and prolific as Fox - the two men who initially kept him out of the national side.

He wasn’t as quick and audaciously talented as Carlos Spencer and Andrew Mehrtens who played ahead of him later in his career.

He was a steady, quality first-five.

There is absolutely no disgrace in that and Foster may yet prove to be a very good head coach of the All Blacks.

He is evolution, when revolution was on offer.

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