Why the All Blacks’ days of dominance are over
On the surface, the fault of lost Tests for NZ rugby can be put on coaches and players. But hubris, the grassroots system and global isolation points to much deeper problems, writes DYLAN CLEAVER.
There was a time there, five years ago to be specific, when it was argued that the All Blacks’ mastery of rugby’s domain was threatening the very legitimacy of the sport.
It was not idle chatter. The global media behemoth that is The Guardian headlined a story thus in 2017: “All Blacks’ dominance threatens the health of international rugby”.
The argument was the All Blacks had already consigned rugby to an irrelevance in Australia due to the lack of jeopardy in the Bledisloe Cup – which has been in New Zealand Rugby’s possession since 2002 – and unless something happened, well the pay-off line speaks for itself.
“The yawning gap between the All Blacks and the rest of the world may turn test rugby into a great, big yawn.”
Little did the author know the All Blacks’ decline was already in truck, and although that Bledisloe Cup remains elusive for the Wallabies, there are many, even on the right-hand side of the Tasman Sea, who believe this is the year for it to finally change hands again.
If that is the case then it will be used as proof in the case in front of New Zealand’s draconian court of public opinion: That the All Blacks’ days of domination are over and they’re not coming back.
While the decline and the fall of the All Black empire is usually sheeted back to the coaching credentials of Ian Foster, it conveniently ignores the fact the rot started midway through the last World Cup cycle – and it also overlooks the role hubris has played, both from an individual and organisational standpoint.
The decline of this generation of All Blacks has a very real starting point and while Foster was involved, it was as Sir Steve Hansen’s yes-man assistant, not head coach.
In the journal article Napoleon’s Tragic March Home from Moscow: Lessons in Hubris, the authors write that despite the obvious peril that came with attacking Russia, Napoleon thought he could bring Emperor Alexander I (the only European leader of significance who had not paid homage to Le Petit Caporal) to his knees through sheer will power.
Napoleon didn’t need Russia; he needed to humiliate Alexander.
When the Lions washed onto New Zealand’s shores in June, 2017, Hansen didn’t just want to beat them, he wanted to humiliate their coach Warren Gatland, one of the few international rivals who, figuratively speaking, had not kissed the ring.
It was outlined in the book Steve Hansen The Legacy: The Making of a New Zealand Coaching Great.
“Hansen sensed the opportunity to prise open some cracks in the visitors and create chaos by aiming directly at Gatland, because he was the weak link,” writes author Gregor Paul, who interviewed Hansen at length for the book.
“Hansen felt there was much to be gained by conducting a strategic campaign to undermine Gatland in the media … Hansen gave his inner bully licence to roam freely during the Lions series.”
To an extent, the media came along for the ride. The series pivoted from being a contest for the players to a battle of egos of the two New Zealand-born-and-moulded coaches. The NZ Herald led its weekend sports pages with a mocked up image of Gatland as a clown (the same schtick they’d used with Wallaby coach Michael Cheika a year earlier).
It all became a bit dire as the once-in-a-generation showpiece rugby contest descended into a catcalling contest and, from a New Zealand perspective at least, it proved counter-productive. After winning a scintillating contest at Eden Park, the All Blacks were ground down, losing the second test in Wellington and drawing the final encounter.
Because the final test ended on a bizarre and controversial note – with French referee Romain Poite overruling himself after awarding the All Blacks a kickable penalty with time up – it provided a neat deflection from what should have been the key takeaway: The All Blacks’ unparalleled pass-and-catch skills could be neutralised by defensive line-speed and winning the collision.
Hansen had set about belittling Gatland; the Lions’ coach meanwhile set about exposing what would become the All Blacks’ kryptonite.
It may not have happened straight away, but the rest of the world took notice.
The All Blacks arrived in Japan in 2019 as the bookies’ favourites, which was probably fair enough. Since the Lions wobbled them, New Zealand had lost and drawn at home to South Africa, been beaten in Dublin by Ireland and suffered twice at the hands of the Wallabies – including a record 26-47 reverse in Perth – but they were still the most consistent winners in world rugby.
The All Blacks progressed serenely enough to the semi-finals, beating eventual winners South Africa in pool play and destroying Ireland in the quarter-finals, but Eddie Jones had been taking notes.
While 19-7 doesn’t sound like a thrashing, England ruthlessly dismantled the All Blacks, exposing the world champions’ soft underbelly. New Zealand struggled to compete with their physicality and their defensive organisation a la the Lions series two years earlier.
England also revealed something deeper – a fragility in the national sport.
Teams can have off days and in all sorts of ways it is remarkable just how few off days the All Blacks have, but being outmuscled and outcoached pointed to something more elemental.
It also put New Zealand Rugby in an awkward position.
Hansen was leaving his role and his assistant Foster had made it clear he wanted the job having served an eight-year apprenticeship.
Foster was never a sexy choice, despite his role in the team’s success. He’d come from a modest record with the Chiefs and his resume looked even more anaemic when Dave Rennie – now with the Wallabies – took over and immediately won two titles with the Hamilton-based franchise.
The alternatives looked more compelling. Jamie Joseph had won a Super Rugby title and was a hard-nosed operator; Rennie had won titles; Vern Cotter had taken his coaching talent overseas and won in hostile environments; and then there was Scott Robertson.
The former All Blacks back-rower had done nothing but win, picking up world, provincial and Super Rugby titles for fun with the New Zealand under-20s, Canterbury and the Crusaders. Allied to that, his surfer looks and magnetic personality made him the people’s choice.
What he didn’t have was international senior experience and something a little harder to define – connection to the “legacy”.
This was problematic from an optics perspective.
New Zealand Rugby had got a lot of mileage from the nebulous concept that the All Blacks worked on a higher cultural plane. There had been a book, Legacy, written by best-selling author James Kerr about “what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life”.
Part of the All Black legend was based around loyalty and continuity.
What did it say about your famed culture if one loss was all it took to throw those ideals out the window and bring in an entirely different coaching staff and philosophy?
This would not have been such a pinch-point if Robertson had shown any inclination to join Foster’s coaching staff, but he didn’t.
NZR was faced with a binary choice, to continue the “legacy” or head off in a new direction. To the dismay of many, they chose to stick rather than twist.
To blame all of the All Blacks’ recent woes on Foster and his staff, which included the recently sacked Brad Mooar and John Plumtree, would be reductive.
It is true that the All Blacks, who have lost four of their past five tests, have been found wanting tactically and it is also true that NZR chief executive Mark Robinson has offered Foster only qualified support.
“He is certainly the person to lead the team to South Africa,” he recently said, refusing to commit beyond that – but there is a creeping sense of doom enveloping the sport as a whole in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
There is a realisation the problems go much deeper than this coach and this set of players.
For years people who operate at the grassroots level of the game have warned that the steep drop-off in boys playing rugby will eventually have an effect on the sharp end of the game.
The reasons for the drop-off – the numbers of teenage boys playing declined a massive 17 per cent in the years 2010-2018, falling behind basketball and, by some measures, football, in terms of popularity – are myriad, from safety concerns to greater sporting choices for today’s youth.
It’s the “professionalisation” of the schoolboy game that worries those with a vested interest in the health of the sport the most.
The televising of 1st XV has seen an arms race that can only be won by schools who can afford to resource their programs. That in turn has seen many schools give up trying. Whereas it used to be said that it was the dream of every schoolboy to play for the All Blacks, now some schools do not even have a single team.
Heath Mills, who has worked in rugby and cricket as a player representative, says that although steps should be taken to depower the wealthy schools with regulations around limiting sponsorship and the amount of TV time, it might be over-egging it to suggest falling participation has contributed to the All Blacks’ demise.
While it might have had a devastating effect on club and community rugby, he says, “You don’t need high participation numbers to produce world champions”.
More pressing, he believes, is a “brain drain throughout our rugby network”.
New Zealand’s unparalleled success during the 2010s, he says, owed much to brilliant technical coaching throughout New Zealand’s age-group system but now a lot of that expertise has been siphoned off overseas, to Europe, Japan and, latterly, Major League Rugby in the United States.
New Zealand Rugby’s diplomatic skills have also come under the microscope. The word hubris has also been raised here, after NZR tried to take control of Super Rugby’s future during the Covid disruption, “inviting” just two Australian teams to take part and watching on as South Africa took their teams to Europe.
The fracture of the SANZAAR relationships has had a negative effect on New Zealand’s forward play in particular, critics say. Although the games were unappealing to viewers and broadcasters because of the time zones, New Zealand’s top coaches have warned not being exposed to South African Super Rugby sides would have an adverse effect.
With Rugby Australia’s sabre-rattling chairman Hamish McLennan making noises about splitting from the current Super Rugby Pacific, there are fears New Zealand could become even more isolated below Test rugby.
Whether it’s a school system that produces a trickle of talent where once there was a torrent, or New Zealand’s increasing isolation (self-inflicted if you believe NZR’s most strident critics), there is a pervasive feeling of gloom – that the strength of the world game has followed the money north to England and France.
New Zealand plays the first of two tests in South Africa in the early hours of Sunday morning at Mbombela. There is the sense that in this relative outpost, it’s not just Foster and his beleaguered players on trial, but the very essence of New Zealand’s relationship with rugby.
Yes, the All Blacks are still making noises. They still command column inches. The august New York Times ran a lengthy feature on the team this week, titled “Rugby’s Greatest Team Confronts a Worrisome Prospect: Decline”.
It’s just not the sort of headline anybody anticipated five short years ago.