Sir Steve Hansen says NZ Rugby must ensure Ian Foster is happy with the All Blacks coach appointment process, or it could risk jeopardising the team’s World Cup campaign.
While former All Blacks coach Hansen sympathizes with NZ Rugby’s predicament when determining whether to ask for job applications before or after the global tournament in France starting in September, he says whatever unfolds can’t be allowed to distract the All Blacks from their mission to win the Webb Ellis Cup.
Hansen, who experienced joy and heartache with the All Blacks when they won the World Cup in 2015 but were beaten by England in the semifinal in Yokohama four years later, believes incumbent Foster, who assisted Hansen during the latter’s eight years as coach, can’ t afford to be disgruntled with whatever NZ Rugby decides to do.
If Foster, whose contract with NZ Rugby expires after the tournament in France, wants to reapply for the post he has held since 2020, he must convince his employer he’s a better option than Crusaders boss Scott Robertson. Jamie Joseph, currently in charge of Japan, may also feature in the list of applicants.
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Whatever happens mustn’t be to the detriment of the All Blacks ahead of the global tournament, believes Hansen.
“I think they [NZ Rugby] have to be really aware of the effect of naming a new coach before a World Cup,” said Hansen, who also coached Wales at the 2003 World Cup in Australia.
Warren Gatland has a proven record in international rugby.
“You don’t need the distraction. You don’t want someone distracting, because he’s – if they appoint a new coach – all excited and starts having conversations that aren’t necessarily until after the World Cup.
“And the ironic thing is that if they win the World Cup, what do they do with Ian Foster if they have already appointed someone [else]? So they are in between a rock and a hard place.”
Unlike 2019, when Hansen made it clear he was stepping down, which created a two-way race for Foster and Robertson to compete for the vacant role after the tournament in Japan, NZ Rugby risks losing talented coaches if it delays the appointment procedure.
Robertson, especially, will be on hot demand; he has already noted he hasn’t discounted coaching another country, and wealthy offshore clubs will be keen to negotiate.
Hansen says NZ Rugby has to figure a way to handle this difficult situation – and not alienate Foster with the outcome.
“They are just going to have to work their way through it, and probably the guy they have to probably work with, most of all, is the incumbent All Blacks coach Ian Foster and see what he is happy with.”
Traditionally NZ Rugby has named its coach after the World Cup, or already had one in place. For example, Hansen had already negotiated a contract extension before the 2015 World Cup.
Now, though, NZ Rugby realizes it may need to be more flexible and CEO Mark Robinson has stated the organization was open to the idea of pulling the trigger earlier.
The danger of doing that, says Hansen, is that it could be disruptive to the All Blacks ahead of the most important assignment in four years.
“I think if you are going to name a new coach before the World Cup’s over, then you have got people looking at who is the boss, and looking at two different people.
“That is a possible derailer; and you don’t want that. Then there is the other side of it, we don’t want to lose people. Look, I think they [NZ Rugby] need to sit down and if they make a decision to do it [appoint the next coach before the World Cup]they would have to put some boundaries around what the incumbent coach could and couldn’t do.
“Basically I think he should be told, and then leave it at that until such time as the World Cup is over, and then announce it.”
Although France are on many pundits’ list as the favorites to win the tournament for the first time – they will meet the All Blacks in the first game in Paris on September 8 – the field is heavy with teams capable of blowing the hosts off course.
Ireland, South Africa, England and the All Blacks could ruin Les Bleus’ party, and Australia proved they could be dark horses after almost tipping over the French during their recent northern tour.
In 2011 the All Blacks entered the tournament on home soil, cloaked with the responsibility of attempting to break a 24-year duck after bombing out in the quarterfinal against France in 2007.
How France dealt with the heat of not only trying to win the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time, but on home soil, could determine their fate.
“I think France probably are the favorites, but that could be a hindrance or add a lot of pressure to them,” Hansen says. “We knew what that was like in 2011, so you have got to deal with that and all the things that come with playing at home.
But they are playing very well. Ireland have got their own monkey to get off their back, haven’t they? They haven’t really gone that well at World Cups. They are playing good footy at the moment.
“South Africa are always tough, England will be tough and I think the All Blacks are going to be very tough.”
Despite the disappointing 25-25 draw with England in London last month – they conceded three tries in the final nine minutes while Beauden Barrett was in the sin bin – Hansen is optimistic about the All Blacks’ chances at the World Cup.
While he believes former England coach Eddie Jones, who has been sacked and replaced by Steve Borthwick, was holding something back ahead of the tournament, Hansen doesn’t think the All Blacks had the same strategy in mind.
He also believes not being labeled favorites is “a great thing”.
“I think the All Blacks are just learning who they are again after some adversity and some injuries.
“Those injuries have allowed them to find some things out. Likes [Jordie] Barrett going to second-five, I think, is brilliant. He has really made a difference. And we still have some injured players to come back, and have a lot of guys to come through the Super Rugby season.
“So there will be some more fun and games there.”
Hansen recently returned to New Zealand from Japan, where he works as a coaching consultant with the Toyota Verblitz club. His time on the grass is limited. New Zealanders Ben Herring, Ryan Martin and Nathan White are on the coaching staff and hands-on coaching is their realm.
In addition to assisting the coaching staff, Hansen is involved with high performance, and helps with the strategies of recruitment.
Hansen will lead a World XV against a Barbarians team coached by Jones in May, at Twickenham.
It will be the first time the pair have coached against each other since the ill-fated World Cup semi in 2019. Hansen versus Jones, the chance for revenge. It has a nice ring to it, but the New Zealander is not getting carried away.
For starters, he will have less than a week to work with his team at training.
“It’s a totally different game isn’t it? It’s not a World Cup game, it’s a game that is going to entertain the public. It’s a feature for the media and, I suppose, the fans but at the end of the day it won’t be anything like a World Cup game.”
Hansen and Jones are mates, having regularly kept in contact throughout their careers – even when preparing their teams for massive occasions, such as the 2019 World Cup semi.
Having been in touch with Jones “quite a bit” since he was sacked as England coach, Hansen says Jones, who also contracts his skills to Japanese club Suntory, hasn’t lost his pragmatic outlook.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he pops up coaching Japan, once Jamie (current Japan coach Jamie Joseph) goes.”
Asked if he was surprised that England replaced Jones with Borthwick, less than a year out from the World Cup, Hansen says: “Well, he’s their most successful coach. So I don’t think they needed to treat him like that, and sack him. It’s pretty close to the World Cup and he was pretty focused on doing well there, and he had a very good track record at World Cups.
“However, they have made that decision and that’s their decision based on all their facts and figures. So you just have to get on with it, don’t you?”