Foster: ‘It’s about beating the Boks, not being ranked No 1’

Ian Foster's All Blacks may be back at No 1, but that's not what's motivating them at the moment. TERTIUS PICKARD/AP

The All Blacks are back at the top of the world rankings, though you will forgive coach Ian Foster for not exactly breaking out the party hats and streamers in the wake of yet another Rugby Championship victory that got them there.

It was a businesslike Foster who reflected on his team’s eighth straight victory in 2021, and ninth on the bounce all told, in Brisbane late on Saturday night, with their 36-13 bonus-point win over Argentina putting them in a nigh on unassailable position on the championship standings.

And neither that 10-point buffer his team has with two rounds remaining, nor that No 1 position they have regained on the global rankings, was changing his mindset.

That’s because world champions South Africa are now on the horizon, starting with the 100th test between the two countries in Townsville next Saturday, and then the competition finale a week later on the Gold Coast. And even though the Boks seem to have a bad case of the staggers, now having lost two straight to the Wallabies, that always gets the attention of anyone coaching the All Blacks.

After skipper Ardie Savea swatted aside the relevance of the 23-point victory regaining the top ranking spot for the All Blacks post-game – “My mindset is you’ve got to beat No 1 to be No 1,” he said – Foster followed suit in the interview room at Suncorp Stadium.

“It’s not on our mind at all,” said this coach who really does look to be building something special. “I’m not saying that to downplay it. We’re about to play South Africa next week, we’ll get excited about that. We’re more interested in winning a test match than where we sit [on the rankings].

“If we focus too much on the other thing, we’ll get tripped up and won’t be there for very long and that doesn’t interest us either.”

Foster admitted in his post-game musings that these two matches against Argentina, during which he has used the full resources of his squad, have been undergone with these back-to-back tests against the Boks very much in mind.

That’s not out of a lack of respect for Argentina. Just an abundance of it for the South Africans.

“We love playing test matches, but we really love playing South Africa, probably because of the amount of respect we’ve got for them,” said Foster. “Over history it’s been an outstanding rivalry. We’re not so much talking about No 1s and No 2s, we’ve got a chance to go to Townsville to play a foe we’ve got a lot of respect for and put ourselves in a pretty nice position in this championship.”

Foster gave his team, featuring 11 starting changes from that which blanked the Pumas 39-0 on the Gold Coast six days earlier, a qualified pass mark. He wasn’t so keen on the second half (won 12-10), or the spurned chances in the first stanza that prevented a 24-3 lead being something much more substantial, but was largely happy about the way his mix of hardened veterans and fresh-faced youngsters went about their business.

He name-checked Quinn Tupaea, Braydon Ennor (off the bench), two-try lock Tupou Vai and the fit-again Patrick Tuipulotu as a quartet who impressed him. He later raved about Ethan Blackadder’s resolute qualities, and could have done likewise about Hoskins Sotutu and Samison Taukei’aho as well. They all played well.

“It’s five tests in a row, every team is going to have to dig deep into their well over the next fortnight. The strategy of how we went into this game puts us in a pretty good place going into the next two weeks,” he reflected.

Foster said his younger types showed him plenty about their preparation, their skills and their ability to wade through a tough spot in the third quarter after a performance that had its shortcomings.

“It was good for our younger, newer players to feel that pressure and tension, and that fourth quarter will be gold for us going forward because they will realise … if you don’t finish up when you’ve got a chance, you’re in for a bunfight, and we had our hands full in that last quarter against Argentina.”

But he understands the value of this depth he is building, even if he has to take a risk or two to do it.

“In 2021 we’ve got two blocks of five tests in a row … we’ve taken a few gambles in a sense by utilising our squad. That is going to reap the rewards for us later on, but right now it’s a good position because we’ve got a lot of guys in form and it’s creating some good conversations.”

Those conversations will be all about the Boks now.

“I saw enough of that game, about 50-odd minutes, to know what’s coming,” he said. “The Wallabies did a really good job against them two weeks in a row, and played well. It’s probably the first time South Africa have played against a team that’s played with a lot of tempo in the last two years. I think they’ll learn a lot from that.”

 

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