As World Rugby prepares to officially launch its ticket re-sell website for the Rugby World Cup which kicks off in Paris in early September – another indication the game’s big money maker is drawing ever closer – an intriguing scenario concerning the future of All Blacks head coach Ian Foster is building.
What it amounts to is this: Will New Zealand Rugby, an organisation characterised by its conservatism, and which by its own admission mucked up the process of replacing Sir Steve Hansen in 2019, really be prepared to send Foster to the World Cup knowing he won’t have a job after it?
It has been only seven weeks since chief executive Mark Robinson revealed that his organisation was already talking to candidates for the All Blacks’ head coach role for 2024 onwards.
Included in that group will presumably be Crusaders coach Scott Robertson – snubbed at the end of 2019 and then flirted with again last year as Foster’s potential replacement - and now possibly former Chiefs coach Dave Rennie after he was dramatically sacked by the Wallabies.
Robinson’s statement at the end of a difficult year for the All Blacks in which they lost a home series to Ireland, lost to Argentina in Christchurch, and contrived to throw away victory against England at Twickenham, was a confirmation of a significant change of policy for NZ Rugby.
It was and is a dramatic proposition, but now that the new year has dawned and a metaphorical door has closed on a series of performances by the All Blacks characterised by an at-times wild inconsistency, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe an ever-conservative NZR will appoint anyone other than Foster.
Forget for a moment the self interest involved in the group of senior All Blacks making a personal case to Robinson in South Africa for Foster to be retained despite the 26-10 defeat to the Springboks at Mbombela Stadium in August (they won a week later in Johannesburg 35-23 in one of their best performances of the year).
It was an illustration of a depth of feeling held by the players towards a man forced to say goodbye to his two sacked assistants Brad Mooar and John Plumtree prior to the tour.
The All Blacks rallied that week to win at Ellis Park (as NZR began their Plan B by secretly contacting Robertson in Christchurch) and it’s impossible to know what the repercussions would be in terms of the players’ reactions should Foster not be reappointed. The power held by the players in this regard should not be underestimated.
The other issue is timing. NZ Rugby's first board meeting of the year is scheduled for February 23, so nothing will be decided before then.
Super Rugby Pacific, a competition that Robertson will be desperate to win yet again in what will be his last hurrah with the Crusaders, kicks off a day later and finishes in June.
In July, the All Blacks play a shortened Rugby Championship against Argentina in Mendoza, South Africa at Eden Park and Australia in Melbourne.
Would NZ Rugby want to see how the All Blacks perform over those three Tests before making their decision? If so, it would be leaving it mighty late; the Wallabies Test is on July 29 and the All Blacks leave for the Springboks Test in London – a World Cup warm-up - around a fortnight later.
It’s unlikely to surprise anyone that the All Blacks have already started making hotel bookings and other logistical arrangements for the World Cup which kicks off with their pool game against France at the Stade de France on September 9.
It will also not surprise anyone to hear that Test rugby teams are united in their dislike of distractions, and it doesn’t get much more distracting than changing the head coach before a World Cup.
New year, new optimism: Foster will likely feel reasonably comfortable after his summer break as he considers a huge year for the game worldwide and, on balance, so he should.