WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – The strict standards that New Zealand rugby fans have held on to the All Blacks coach are evident again at the end of a turbulent 2020 season in which the national team played only six trial matches.
The All Blacks have retained the Bledisloe Cup for 18 consecutive years and are likely to claim the Tri-Nations title with Saturday’s 38-0 win over Argentina in Newcastle.
But fans will likely give new head coach Ian Foster just the mark of passing trials at the end of his first season as coach. The All Blacks finished the year with three wins, two defeats and a draw – a poor record by their high standards.
Foster’s job may be in jeopardy if the All Blacks lose again on Saturday, going through three successive defeats for the first time in 22 years. The All Blacks’ win by five zero tries may have taken some of the pressure off Foster and allowed him to go to the end of the year with his job safe for now.
“We didn’t lose faith in what we were doing,” said Foster. “It has been a big couple of weeks but the players are still determined to play and I feel we got the formula right today.
“They’re a proud team, they play with passion. It’s been some big days for their country with the death of an icon (Diego Maradona). We knew they would bring a lot of attitude, and we saw that in the first half.
“The losses two weeks ago were still painful but tonight there is still a long way to go to fix them. We have to remind ourselves that we played to win trophies today and we’ll see what happens next week. “
Some fans feared Foster might not be the best candidate when he was appointed last December to replace World Cup winning head coach Steve Hansen as unlikely to be completely at ease. Others may now be willing to postpone the judgment.
The All Blacks succeeded on Saturday to fix some of the problems that proved to be in their first defeat to Argentina two weeks ago. Their set pieces are solid, they are more efficient at breakdowns, they hit stronger and bend the advantage line and are able to move the ball into the outside channel, which they couldn’t in Sydney when they lost 25-15.
But the performance was imperfect and Argentina fielded a weaker team than in Sydney. Argentina’s defense is much better than the scoreline indicates and Puma is still very effective at isolating the ball carrier.
New Zealand had almost 75% possession of the ball but only managed one first half attempt. The score line ballooned when substitute Will Jordan was given two attempts from Argentina’s error in a two-minute spell in the middle of the second half. The attempt to lock in Patrick Tuipulotu nearly five minutes after the full-time siren also made the All Blacks’ win look more comprehensive than ever.
Scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flyhalf Richie Mo’unga’s form in managing the All Blacks’ attack was poor and New Zealand should have scored more of the possession and territory advantage enjoyed. It produces easy yards around the edges in defensive performance that is not nearly as perfect as the goalless result suggests and the kicking game needs radar.
There are still selection problems that Foster must face next year. Beauden Barrett is not doing well at full-back and brother Jordie doesn’t look to be getting his best advantage down the right flank.
On the other hand, Akira Ioane is very new to testing rugby but looks to offer the best option New Zealand has had on the blind wing since Jerome Kaino’s retirement. He brought about violence that the All Blacks didn’t have these days.
Scott Barrett is much better than Foster expected and could be Sam Whitelock’s veteran permanent partner if he can keep up his discipline. Nepo Laulala upped the All Blacks’ scrum by stepping into the openings at the tight stanchions left by suspended Ofa Tuungafasi and fully fit Dane Coles was definitely the No. 1 New Zealand.
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