New Zealand head coach Ian Foster has plenty of time on the long flight home from Paris to Auckland to reflect on the past few months and pick apart the good, and the not so good.
Saturday’s loss to France was New Zealand’s first defeat on French soil since 2000, and their first defeat anywhere to them since 2009 at Carisbrook.
It is also New Zealand’s worst year, with three defeats, since 2009, and the first time they have lost back-to-back Tests to northern hemisphere sides, having been beaten by Ireland the previous week in Dublin, since the 1930s.
What makes the All Blacks’ predicament interesting is the reaction in New Zealand.
Do you accept that both defeats have come at the end of a long, testing year, or, believe they point to more deep-rooted issues within the All Blacks under the current regime?
Foster’s post-match comments highlighted two key factors behind the loss to France.
First, that New Zealand had started poorly for the second week in a row, with France scoring two tries in the first 12 minutes.
But the other factor was of greater interest, with Foster admitting that the All Blacks had allowed France to “impose themselves on us”.
Wayne “Buck” Shelford, the former All Blacks captain, recently highlighted the side’s lack of power when speaking to Radio New Zealand, noting that Ireland and France’s packs had set the physical tone and that the All Blacks had lacked the power ball-carriers required to get over the gain line and create momentum and space for their backs.
Where that will come as a concern for Foster is that Saturday’s pack was arguably the All Blacks’ strongest available, with Sam Cane back in the side after his long injury lay-off to join Ardie Savea (at No 8) and Akira Ioane in the back row, and a tight five of Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala, Brodie Retallick and captain Sam Whitelock.
Codie Taylor could arguably start ahead of Coles, who is now 34, at hooker, while Ethan Blackadder and Dalton Papali’i have impressed at times on this tour in the back row.
But otherwise there is little debate around the pack selection, which puts the spotlight on performance and tactics to explain how New Zealand have been overpowered in their three defeats this year up front by South Africa, Ireland and now France. Les Bleus even scored two line-out drive tries.
Foster added in his press conference that some teams had played too much rugby in 2021.
Paris was the All Blacks’ 15th and final Test of a long year spent in bubbles touring the globe, which goes part of the way to explaining their slow start and perhaps physical fatigue.
But unless New Zealand can improve physically up front to contain powerful packs such as South Africa, Ireland and France, creating the platform for their backs to do what they do, then they have a problem. The kicking game, often too inaccurate, has also come in for heavy criticism.
Foster’s appointment as head coach has been under pressure since the start, when the former assistant under Steve Hansen was appointed as his successor following the last World Cup instead of serial Super Rugby-winning coach Scott Robertson.
With Robertson still picking up silverware in the background with the Crusaders in Christchurch, you can forgive Foster for occasionally looking over his shoulder.
Robertson understandably still has his supporters, and you sense is going to become the All Blacks head coach sooner or later.
Foster’s contract was extended in August through to the next World Cup, after he was initially appointed only on a two-year contract.
The timing of that extension ahead of the European tour is now being targeted as a questionable move given New Zealand’s recent losses – although South Africa and Australia have lost more Tests this year. “It’s a hard year to say teams have sorted us out,” Foster added.
The coach highlighted the Covid-19 disruptions and noted that several players had been on their first tours to Europe.
For centre Quinn Tupaea, 22, and lock Tupou Vaa’i, 21, the experience should make them better players and open some eyes.
Foster and his coaching staff have now used 50 different players in this World Cup cycle, and he cited the use of five All Blacks captains this year as a sign of further disruption.
The statistic that really matters is the one that says New Zealand’s win percentage has dropped from 83 per cent in the last World Cup cycle to 71 per cent.
The All Blacks lost seven Tests between 2015 and 2019. They have already lost five out of 16 since Foster took charge.
There is every chance that could all change next year, that the time for tweaking and experimenting will be over and a well-rested All Blacks side will be physically rejuvenated and more accurate in their kicking and attacking game, rolling out their best side and winning that three-Test series with Ireland next July convincingly.
But after such a disappointing end to 2021, and given the way the All Blacks struggled physically against Ireland and France, a response is now required.
And that puts more pressure on Foster and his coaches with the World Cup beginning to creep into view.