Argentina v New Zealand: The coaching culture war that is the talk of New Zealand

By Mike HensonBBC Sport
Ian Foster and Scott Robertson
New Zealand head coach Ian Foster (left) beat Crusaders coach Scott Robertson to the national team job last year
Tri Nations - Argentina v New Zealand
Date: Saturday 28 November Kick-off: 08:45 GMT Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle, Australia
Coverage: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

When you have a record like New Zealand's one defeat might be misfortune.

Two looks like sloppiness.

Three though? A full-blown crisis.

Before this month's defeats by Argentina and Australia, you had to go back to 2011 to find the last time the All Blacks lost successive Tests.

On Saturday, they face the Pumas in New South Wales knowing a third loss in a row would be their worst run since 1998.

Back home in New Zealand, they aren't looking for historical precedents. The search is on for present-day answers.

Is the front five under-powered? Is Jordie Barrett really a wing? Is Rieko Ioane really a centre?

Beauden Barrett
Beauden Barrett's move to full-back from fly-half still has its critics

Is the double playmaker pivot of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga, at 15 and 10 respectively, a compromise that suits no-one?

Amid all the questions, the focus has fallen most sharply on the sidelines.

Coach Ian Foster took over from Steve Hansen at the end of 2019 Rugby World Cup.

He had served as Hansen's right-hand man for eight years. He soaked up the fabled All Black environment and ethos. He was the continuity candidate for rugby's most enduring success story. The establishment choice. The company man.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson is a man who makes new traditions instead. The 46-year-old celebrates titles with on-pitch breakdancing.

And he has got plenty of practice. His whirling limbs have now circled four straight Super Rugby titles, having turned the Canterbury side from under-achievers to serial winners.

New Zealand under Ian Foster
PlayedWonDrawnLostPts diff
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His continued success and Foster's slow start has opened up something of a culture war in New Zealand rugby.

"Scott Robertson is really the anti-Ian Foster, they are really contrasting characters," says Marc Hinton, senior writer with Stuff.co.nz and the Sunday Star-Times, who has covered the All Blacks since 1996.

"Ian is old school, a buttoned-down kind of guy. Scott is a young, progressive, new-age coach. He speaks the language of the modern player, he is very much a players' coach.

"He calls it like it is, he has a great relationship with the media, he surfs, he celebrates championships by breakdancing. There is a bit of mystique about him. And his ability to win is extraordinary.

"Scott Robertson hovers over Ian Foster, there is no doubt about that. Robertson has got a lot of support among the public, especially around that Crusaders region on the South Island."

Scott Robertson
Robertson's celebratory breakdances have become a Super Rugby tradition

Robertson's Super Rugby success is not on Foster's CV. Foster spent eight years in charge of the Chiefs, marked by mediocre form and only two play-off appearances in Super Rugby.

After he left, Dave Rennie, now Australia coach, won back-to-back Super Rugby titles with the same team.

"I introduce myself as Ian Foster, the guy who coached the Chiefs before they won anything," he joked in February.external-link

It isn't a quip he would risk now.

Robertson is a big believer in the power of language and imagery to inspire. One of his first changes at Crusaders was to use boxing terminology when talking defence. He found the right words added urgency and aggression to his players' deeds.

He must be just as aware of the message some will hear in his recent words to the media.

He revealed in August that he has approached Warren Gatland about the possibility of a role with the British and Irish Lions in South Africa next summer.

He has also made noises about a return to France, where he spent three years as a player with Perpignan after winning 23 caps in the All Black back row.

That the Wales job, currently uneasily occupied by Wayne Pivac, was the route Sir Graham Henry took to the All Blacks role won't have escaped Robertson's attention.

Scott Robertson
Robertson made 23 appearances for the All Blacks between 1998 and 2002

"Robertson would love to do the All Blacks job, but he is also ambitious. He has a yearning to prove himself," explained Hinton.

"He bristles a bit if he is not being given the opportunities he thinks he deserves.

"He has made it clear he has limited patience to hang around.

"The one thing he doesn't have on his CV is an overseas coaching experience.

"If he doesn't see a pathway to that All Blacks job in the next two or three years, he might be tempted to take some of that overseas experience that might round him out as a coach."

Foster's contract only runs until the end of 2021, with New Zealand Rugby having an option to extend it until the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The likelihood is Foster will make it to 2021 at least.

Coronavirus has spared him a more testing fixture list, with matches against Rugby World Cup finalists South Africa and England cancelled.

But, the pandemic also disrupted his own plans. After winning the Bledisloe Cup against Australia in style in October, his players may be forgiven for clocking off mentally in this strangest of years.

With New Zealand Rugby expected to post big financial losses, the cost of bringing Foster's contract to an early end would be a consideration as well.

But, another shock win for Argentina on Saturday might have them doing the sums.

"If they lose, things could get interesting quickly. All bets might be off," said Hinton.

"A heavy defeat and the world could implode for Ian Foster."

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