All Blacks coach Foster seeks improvement in 2nd test v Fiji
Head coach Ian Foster may need the All Blacks to convincingly beat Fiji in the second rugby test on Saturday to quiet rising concern about the standard of the New Zealand team’s recent performances.
The All Blacks beat Fiji 57-23 in the first test last weekend but the scoreline was deceptive; hooker Dane Coles came off the bench to score four second-half tries and make the win seem more emphatic than it was.
Fans have since expressed concern about the manner in which the Fiji team won the physical battle against New Zealand, outplaying the All Blacks at breakdowns where they won at least nine turnovers and several penalties. The level of physicality has been a recurring theme for the All Blacks in recent years, highlighted in their semifinal loss to England at the 2019 World Cup.
Foster, previously an assistant to Steve Hansen, took over as head coach after the World Cup in Japan in what New Zealand Rugby has styled as a planned succession. The appointment divided opinion, with many All Blacks fans preferring Scott Robertson, who has now led the Christchurch-based Crusaders to five consecutive Super Rugby titles.
Foster is only contracted to the end of the current season and Robertson recently has re-signed with the Crusaders, increasing pressure on Foster to turn around the team’s performance.
Foster’s first season in charge, in 2020, ended with the All Blacks winning two and losing two tests. The losses included an historic first-ever defeat by Argentina, which overwhelmed New Zealand in the physical contest.
Foster was able to claim the 2020 season was a unique one because of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which forced the All Blacks to base themselves in Australia for a Tri-Nations series against the Wallabies and Pumas.
The All Blacks have a more extensive schedule planned this year with a full Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship and an end of year tour to Britain if the pandemic allows. Foster will have fewer excuses if the All Blacks fail to perform consistently and to lift the physical part of their game.
He expressed some satisfaction with his team’s first test performance and less concern than others about the breakdown dysfunction. Foster highlighted the role of the ball carrier in setting targeted points for breakdowns to allow support to arrive more quickly.
He expects improvement on Saturday when the All Blacks field a team closer to his strongest available lineup.
“Clearly we want to improve,” Foster said. “How we carry the ball and recycle the ball is going to be important.
“The danger of that is that we don’t want to get into purely a retaining the ball mode. We still want to attack so it’s getting that balance, not going into our shells ... but making accurate decisions.”
The All Blacks lack of physical impact may stem from domestic Super Rugby in which tight forward play is almost absent.
Most of the Fiji players play in Europe, where fundamental forward play is more prevalent.
Fiji head coach Vern Cotter said in the first test his team competed well at the breakdown and was well structured with their set piece, but “in the last 20 minutes we just run out of steam.”
“There were some really positive signs as we slowed the All Blacks down and they expected to play undercover,” he said. “The Flying Fijians did a really good job at going in and disrupting and stealing ball and that was important in stopping the All Blacks flow.
“There are some very positive things from the last game that we’re happy with and things that we need to work on to became more competitive for our next game this weekend.”
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