The mighty All Blacks are falling. Can they rule world rugby again? | New Zealand rugby union team

New Zealand rugby’s tipping point appears nigh. Alarmist? Maybe. Yet as the fissures deepen while the All Blacks embark on a defining South African tour, New Zealand grows increasingly impatient for signs of resuscitation of its revered rugby tradition.

Two weeks ago the All Blacks ignited mass waiting after losing against Ireland in Wellington – a result that consigned Ian Foster’s widely derided All Blacks to their first home series defeat in 27 years, their first ever against the Irish, and their fourth defeat in five Tests .

Cue outrage. Such a sharp plateau cuts through New Zealand’s societal and political divides to form unified condemnation.

Six days of silence followed as the All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby held high-powered meetings behind closed doors. The information vacuum sparked wild speculation, with calls for everyone from the coach to the captain to be sacked.

All Blacks coach Ian Foster speaks to the media in the week after the series loss to Ireland. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Foster has survived, for now at least, despite a 66.7% win record which ranks him the worst All Blacks coach in the professional era.

In a defiant, emotional address last week Foster attempted to counterpunch the mounting red mist. Yet only by delivering an immediate transformation in two brutal Tests on the South African highveld can he secure his future.

Casualties have emerged in the form of All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree and attack mentor Brad Mooar – both shown the door a matter of months after re-signing through to the 2023 World Cup.

Sacking coaches mid-tenure is a cut-throat notion far more aligned to European football than uber-conservative New Zealand rugby, reflecting the relentless public pressure and sustained demand for change.

While rugby’s rankings require Pythagoras’s theorem to fathom, the All Blacks dropping to fourth for the first time aptly depicts their struggles.

For the vocal disaffected, the circumstances surrounding Foster’s accession to the All Blacks throne – on the continuity ticket after eight years as Steve Hansen’s assistant – and the team’s subsequent malaise, create one clear cause for the demise.

A challenging Covid landscape has been unkind to Foster’s troubled tenure, but the now-evident erosion of the All Blacks, and that of their fear factor, can be traced back to the drawn 2017 British and Irish Lions series and the crushing World Cup semi- final defeat to England two years later.

England captain Owen Farrell smiling at the All Blacks as they perform the haka before the 2019 world cup semi-final.
England captain Owen Farrell smiling at the All Blacks as they perform the haka before the 2019 world cup semi-final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Like climate change deniers, many New Zealand rugby fans refuse to accept a changing of the guard is possible or that deeper issues than the coach are at play.

While New Zealand rugby boasts a legacy of success, the unrealistic expectations that the All Blacks win every Test were ingrained by the dominance of the near untouchable 2012-2016 team that lost twice in five years.

The All Blacks of that time mount a compelling argument for New Zealand’s best-ever team. Only now, in times of extreme frustration and calls for coaching cleanouts, are their feats truly appreciated. Their like will probably never be seen again.

Further coaching changes may help improve the All Blacks’ fortunes, but that theory is too dismissive of the northern nations’ significant improvement since 2015, with France and Ireland now leading the charge.

The gap at the top has closed – and there is every reason to believe it will stay that way.

From a New Zealand perspective, a total reset could be required. Projected quick fix solutions such as ushering in six-time Super Rugby-winning Crusaders coach Scott Robertson may not provide an instant cure.

Written off and under siege as they confront rugby’s toughest assignment, the All Blacks could silence their doubters by pulling off upset victories against the world champion Springboks in the coming weeks.

But even in that utopian scenario, New Zealand rugby’s deeper issues will not be addressed. Scratch the surface and a litany of challenges emerge.

This week Hansen launched a scathing attack that placed responsibility for a series of failures squarely at the New Zealand Rugby board’s feet, saying the relationship between the board and players was “probably the worst it’s ever been”.

Other issues include the number of teenage boys playing rugby falling at alarming rates for the past eight years – down 17% to 2018, at a time when basketball’s popularity grew 41%. This can partly be attributed to the professionalisation of schoolboy rugby, and the lack of focus on those below the elite first XVs. In Auckland alone the number of secondary school rugby teams fell from 225 to 181 between 2013 and 2018.

The decimated grassroots scene, where many clubs have folded and amalgamated, continues to have a profound effect on participation and engagement, too, while crowds and ratings for the elite game are declining.

New Zealand’s talent development, particularly that of the once dominant under-20s team, has declined since 2017, before a sudden revival this season.

In the professional realm this year’s remodeled 12-team Super Rugby competition exposed a dearth of contrasting, confrontational styles. The absence of South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Argentina, leave largely homogenised contests that do not best prepare New Zealand’s players for the combative, suffocating Test arena. And while the recently signed $200m deal with US private investment firm Silver Lake offers financial security, the potential long-term pressure points of that arrangement remain unclear.

As Blues coach Leon MacDonald noted earlier this year dwindling depth is another pressing concern. From America’s Major League Rugby to Japan and Europe, New Zealand’s stocks remain among the most popular to pillage.

“It is an issue,” MacDonald said. “The depth of our players is getting less and less and less. That’s something we’ve noticed it’s becoming harder and harder for us to find the players we need.”

A golden All Blacks era masked creaks that have evolved into cracks. But as the treasured pyramid head now threatens to topple, the Shaky Isles rumbles on the precipice of a reckoning with their national game.

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