The mighty All Blacks fall. Will they be able to reign over world rugby again?

NOTThe turning point of New Zealand rugby seems close. Alarmist? Maybe. Yet as the cracks deepen as the All Blacks embark on a defining South African tour, New Zealand is growing increasingly eager to see signs of resuscitation of its revered rugby tradition.

Two weeks ago, the All Blacks called for a mass evacuation after lose to Ireland in Wellington – a result that condemned Ian Foster’s widely ridiculed All Blacks to their first home series loss in 27 years, their first ever against the Irish and their fourth defeat in five Tests.

Report outrage. Such a sharp plateau crosses New Zealand’s societal and political divides to form a unified condemnation.

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

All Blacks manager Ian Foster looks dejected during a press conference
All Blacks manager Ian Foster spoke to the media in the week following the series loss to Ireland. Photography: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Foster survived, for now at leastdespite a winning record of 66.7% which ranks him as the All Blacks’ worst manager of the professional era.

In a provocative and moving address last week, Foster tried to counter the rising red haze. Yet only by achieving an immediate transformation in two brutal tests on the South African highveld can he secure his future.

Losses emerged in the form of All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree and attacking mentor Brad Mooar – both showed the door just months after re-signing through to the 2023 World Cup.

The mid-term firing of coaches is a relentless notion far more aligned with European football than ultra-conservative New Zealand rugby, reflecting relentless public pressure and sustained demand for change.

While rugby rankings require the Pythagorean theorem to be understood, the All Blacks finishing fourth for the first time illustrates their struggles.

For disgruntled voices, 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 unease, create a clear cause for disappearance.

A tough Covid landscape has been nasty with Foster’s troubled tenure, but the All Blacks’ now evident erosion, and that of their fear factor, dates back to the 2017 British and Irish Lions series and crushing half -Final of the World Cup. final defeat against England two years later.

England captain Owen Farrell smiles at the All Blacks as they perform the haka ahead of the 2019 World Cup semi-final.
England captain Owen Farrell smiles at the All Blacks as they perform the haka ahead of the 2019 World Cup semi-final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

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

While New Zealand rugby has a legacy of success, unrealistic expectations of the All Blacks winning every Test have been rooted in the dominance of the nearly untouchable side from 2012-16 who lost twice in five years.

The All Blacks of this era make a compelling case for New Zealand’s best team. It is only now, in these times of extreme frustration and calls for coaches to clean up, that their exploits are truly appreciated. Their like will probably never be seen again.

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

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

From a New Zealand perspective, a total reset might be needed. Projected quick fixes such as the introduction of six-time Super Rugby winner Crusaders coach Scott Robertson may not provide an instant remedy.

Left behind and beleaguered as they face rugby’s toughest mission, the All Blacks could silence their doubters by securing upset victories against world champion Springboks in the coming weeks.

But even in this utopian scenario, New Zealand rugby’s deepest problems will remain unresolved. Scratch the surface and a litany of challenges arise.

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

Other issues include the number of teenagers playing rugby which has fallen at an alarming rate over the past eight years – down 17% from 2018, at a time when basketball’s popularity has surged by 41%. This can in part 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 rose from 225 to 181 between 2013 and 2018.

The decimated grassroots scene, where many clubs have folded and merged, also continues to have a profound effect on attendance and engagement, while crowds and ratings for elite play are down.

The development of New Zealand talent, particularly that of the once-dominant Under-20 side, has declined since 2017, before a sudden upturn this season.

In the professional arena, this year’s revamped 12-team Super Rugby competition has revealed a dearth of contrasting and clashing styles. The absence of South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Argentina, leaves competitions largely homogenized which do not best prepare New Zealand players for the combative and stifling arena of the Test. And while the recently signed $200 million deal with US private investment firm Silver Lake provides financial security, the deal’s potential long-term pressure points remain unclear.

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

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

An All Blacks golden era masked squeals that evolved into crunches. But as the head of the cherished pyramid now threatens to crumble, the trembling islands rumble over the precipice of a settling of scores with their national game.

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