How DID the All Blacks lose their aura of invincibility? Amid commercial pressure, a player exodus to Europe and Japan and doubts over head coach Ian Foster, everything points to a team who have taken their eye off the ball
- New Zealand have suffered four defeats in 12 matches this year
- Their reputation as a side to be feared has taken a hammering as a result
- A run of six victories has shown signs of revival for the Kiwis though
- A defeat by England on Saturday would mark their worst year since 1998
Gone are the days of standing room only for an All Blacks team announcement, when the room was filled with an air of invincibility.
As their lunchtime briefing kicked off in Teddington on Thursday, the Virginia Wade suite at the Lensbury Hotel was barely a third full.
After four defeats in 12 games this year – including an historic series defeat by Ireland – the All Blacks’ reputation has taken a hammering. A run of six victories has shown signs of revival, yet defeat on Saturday would mark their worst year since 1998.
New Zealand have lost their aura of invincibility after four defeats in 12 matches this year
Have they been distracted by the commercial pressures of building the All Black brand? Does Ian Foster have the necessary coaching credentials? Has their firepower been damaged by the exodus of players to Europe and Japan?
‘It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,’ admitted lock Brodie Retallick, who spent a season with the Kobe Steelers after the 2019 World Cup and will win his 100th cap at Twickenham.
‘We’ve been looking for some consistency. If you look at the experience and the age of this team, with what’s happened in the world the last few years, we haven’t had the occasions of going to Twickenham. Last year was the first time a lot of the players have gone to Europe.
‘These days in Super Rugby we don’t go to South Africa. I didn’t take it for granted but in the early days of my career we were doing that every year and it becomes a tad normal. These days, that’s not so much. Teams do things differently and we have to adapt and not be frustrated by different interpretations.
A run of six victories has shown signs of revival ahead of this weekend’s clash with England
‘If I look back to June, post Ireland series, it’s somewhere I’ve never been in my career. It’s fair to say we’ve come out the other side of that and we’re building. We’ve put some performances together and we’re still looking for some consistency, but it’s a perfect challenge to come up against a big England pack and a skilled team to see where we’re at.’
There has been a generational shift. The likes of Kieran Read, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith stepped aside after the 2019 World Cup, and only Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett remain from the matchday 23 who won the trophy in 2015.
Fresh blood has been added to the team. The NZRU resisted the calls for Scott Robertson to replace Foster but there is a new look to the coaching team. Joe Schmidt added discipline to their attack and Jason Ryan led a shake-up of the forwards after a series of crisis meetings.
‘The All Blacks had a generational team between 2009 and 2017,’ says former full-back Jeff Wilson, who has had a ringside view of their turbulent year as a pundit for Sky. ‘That was a remarkable side full of experience, but that didn’t happen overnight. A lot of those guys tasted defeat between 2004 and 2009, before there was an expectation of ‘wherever we go we win’. The myth and the aura and the legacy was there for years but the game changes, squads change and that’s what we’re seeing right now.
Defeat by England on Saturday would mark New Zealand’s worst year since 1998
‘The nature of the game’s changed. Test rugby’s high pressure and there’s not a lot of space on the field. The All Blacks have got a way they like to play and other teams have become very good at challenging that.
‘This group have got responsibility and expectations and they’re probably only just starting to meet those. They’ve responded to that pressure and I’m pretty happy with where they’re at right now.’
Last week’s stuttering victory over Scotland was not enough to strike fear into the rugby world. Twickenham on Saturday should pose a sterner test – and an opportunity for Foster to avoid a winter of discontent.
‘The challenges of the Rugby Championship have been and gone,’ said Foster. ‘But there’s also three trophies in the cabinet from that competition. The trajectory’s been in the right direction. We’ve taken the lessons but we like where we are right now.’
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