Yesterday Ian Foster was announced as the new coach of the All Blacks, having already spent eight years as part of the coaching setup. Here, Jamie Wall recounts first meeting Foster in Buenos Aires, and how he marks a departure from Steve Hansen.
It was a Friday night earlier this year in Buenos Aires when I got to meet Ian Foster properly. We were all sitting in the bar of the very stately Hotel Emperador at the end of Avenue 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world.
It’s customary to have at least one night of the year for travelling journalists and All Black coaching staff to get together and talk a bit off the record, or just about something else other than chasing a rugby ball around a field. It said a bit that the All Blacks decided to do it during the week of the year’s least important test, and with the smallest New Zealand media contingent available – only two of us and the skeleton Sky Sport crew had made the trip.
Foster had already been the topic of discussion a lot so far in the off season. After all, we were already six months on from Steve Hansen announcing that the 2019 season would be his last as All Black coach. At the time it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, especially after Kieran Read did the same not long after.
But once the test season drew near, the attention turned to who would take over once Hansen was gone, and it seemed like the pre-emptive move by the World Cup-winning coach was going to have the opposite effect. No one could wait until after the tournament to start asking who was going to take his job.
The 54-year-old assistant coach sat down with us, as we rearranged the carefully set chairs into an informal semicircle, as if we were in someone’s garage. Hansen had told us at a press conference earlier in the day that he would pick up the tab, but the boss was yet to arrive. He never ended up paying the tab.
In the meantime, we started chatting about the big sporting event of the year that had just finished: the Women’s Football World Cup. Foster knew more about it than we did. His daughter Michaela is on a scholarship playing at the University of San Diego, so the ins and outs of the US women’s team and its environment were an interesting topic for a bunch of New Zealand rugby men on their third beers.
He was genuinely interested in the media scene back home, asking me about the role that the non-traditional media (which is how I described The Spinoff to him) is playing. It’s unlikely Hansen would have ever engaged in a conversation like this.
A few weeks later and Foster was in a pretty different mood. We were sitting in another bar, at least a closed-off portion of one, under the stands of Optus Stadium in Perth. The All Blacks had just had the highest score by any opponent put on them and the look on his face was telling. All the quotes about waiting until after the World Cup was over to focus on what he would do next were out the door, because he was wearing an extremely worried look. If he was looking into the future, he could see that he was going to have to explain this one at some stage to a job interview panel back in Wellington.
Turns out he needn’t have worried, because everyone could see through the almost comical way in which NZ Rugby went about the hiring process after the All Blacks’ ill-fated World Cup campaign.
So we found ourselves back at the Heritage Hotel today, in a room off Nelson Street where Hansen had been under siege after the first Bledisloe Cup loss. Foster got applause when he stepped up to address the media for the first time as the main man, sounding a little bit like he couldn’t quite believe it. It’s been eight years, he said, clearly making the point that his time waiting in the wings had been spent preparing for this task.
He didn’t do what Hansen had done, which was to sit at a table and direct the conversation through a series of verbal jousts and dry humour. We all got a chance to talk to him one on one, which was Foster’s welcome request.
Does he need to sell himself to the public? In a way, yes. Reinvention, he said. There is definitely a perception that it was Foster’s job no matter what happened at the World Cup, and Crusaders fans are now left with a dilemma of being angry that Scott Robertson didn’t get the job – or be happy that they get to keep him and the inevitable success that he will provide them.
This was a safe choice by NZ Rugby, or at least they think it’s safe. Foster is being given a pretty tough line to run now that the All Blacks aren’t the best team in the world any more, so any tolerance for bad results is going to be extremely thin. He has no track record as an international head coach to fall back on like Hansen, and his employers have only signed him on for two years.
But from what we can see, we know this: he’s a good guy. New Zealand, or at at least the ones who don’t already know, are going to find that out next season as the All Blacks try and reclaim a bit of mana.
Jamie Wall’s new book, Heroics & Heartbreak: Twelve Months with the All Blacks, is on sale now.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.