In recent weeks, a mood of cautious optimism swept through rugby fans and sports analysts in New Zealand. After a year of dismal performances, the All Blacks, New Zealand’s men’s rugby team, seem at times to have regained the magic that long powered them to greatness.
Now, some wonder — often in disbelief, and with several caveats — whether that streak might lead them to the highest honor in men’s rugby: winning the World Cup.
“They’re miles ahead of where they were 12 months ago,” said Dylan Cleaver, a veteran rugby analyst and a former sports editor of NZME, a New Zealand media company. With the exception of a devastating defeat to South Africa two weeks ago that underlined the precariousness of their recovery, Cleaver said, “their World Cup preparation could hardly be better.”
If the All Blacks succeed, it would be a fairy-tale comeback for a group of beleaguered players and coaches who, through much of 2021 and 2022, seemed unable to do anything right. Despite their reputation as the world’s greatest rugby team and an all-time winning rate of almost 80 percent, they lost over and over again.
They lost to France, who routed them in Paris; to South Africa and then just a few weeks later, at home to Argentina; and, most humiliatingly, to Ireland, who beat them twice on home soil for New Zealand’s first home-series defeat since 1994.
Xavier O’Meagher, a fan from Auckland who was in the stadium for Ireland’s second victory, recalled the crowd’s devastation and anger. Even though Ian Foster, the team’s taciturn head coach, needed some support, O’Meagher said, he “was now public enemy No. 1.”
The All Blacks sank to fourth in the world rankings, their lowest-ever placing, and fans resigned themselves to a long rebuilding process, with little optimism about the team’s World Cup chances.
“There’s no doubt I’m under pressure, but I’m always under pressure,” Foster said at a news conference after the Ireland series. “Does it hurt? Yes it does.”
New Zealand Rugby, the sport’s national governing body, was so frustrated that it almost fired Foster. He was saved only after the team eked out a victory against South Africa’s Springboks last August that stemmed its string of losses.
Even then, Foster was forced to replace two of his assistant coaches. New Zealand Rugby later took the unusual step of naming Foster’s successor before he had left his role: a move tantamount to admitting it had lost faith in its top coach and didn’t expect the team’s results at the World Cup to change that.
Since then, however, the All Blacks have done what began to seem impossible: They started winning again. They have won 10 of their past 12 matches, with the only exceptions being a draw to England at Twickenham Stadium in London and the loss to South Africa.
“The pessimism about the All Blacks affected lots of people’s thinking,” said Rikki Swannell, a prominent New Zealand sports commentator for World Rugby and Sky TV NZ. “We didn’t appreciate how much progress they made in the last year.”
A strong example of that progress came in July, during a home game against the Springboks, the defending world champions. Hardly four minutes into the match, Beauden Barrett, the All Blacks’ star fullback, was faced with an incoming opponent. He flung the ball wide to Will Jordan on the wing, who plucked it from the air and began to sprint.
Tackled to the ground by one Springbok, Jordan nonetheless sprang back up, slipped from his opponent’s grasp and swept around a wall of three others. As players fell at Jordan’s feet, he passed to Aaron Smith, who glided to a try.
The moment encapsulated the Springboks’ struggle in that match to contain their ebullient opponents, who at turns steamrollered and sidelined them. The All Blacks won, 35-20, to the delight of a crowd of fans who had long been starved of victories.
On the field, much of that success is the result of a partnership between Barrett and the All Blacks’ flyhalf, Richie Mo’unga. They have been charged with a double-playmaker approach, which is meant to create a more dynamic style of play that is hard for opponents to predict. The structure is roughly equivalent to having two point guards on a basketball team, said Cleaver, the rugby analyst.
“Being a pivot in the All Blacks demands that you are a leader, and I think when I first came in I wasn’t ready for that or I didn’t have the confidence,” Mo’unga recently told reporters, referring to his position. “But I think I’m, more than ever, ready to own that role and take charge if the team needs me.”
In large part, Cleaver and Swannell attributed the team’s growth to the sophisticated coaching of Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt, the assistant coaches who replaced Foster’s previous deputies amid the troubles of last year.
And while some of the issues that have weakened men’s rugby in New Zealand remain — such as dropping participation at the youth level, creating an ever-narrower pipeline of talent — the national team’s present success has revived a little of the excitement that was missing.
“Going into this season, I was not very hopeful at all, given the All Blacks’ struggles,” said John Whitcombe, a fan from Christchurch. Now, however, “I’m feeling a lot more optimistic. I think we have a very realistic chance of winning.”
The All Blacks are not invincible, however, as they learned in their final pretournament match in late August. Facing the Springboks once more, the magic disappeared. Losing 35-7, New Zealand suffered its largest defeat in the team’s history. The result dropped them from No. 2 back down to No. 4 in the world rankings.
It was a flashback to the darker days of 2021 and 2022, and a reminder that success in the World Cup is by no means guaranteed. “They’re still a good side,” Cleaver said, “but beatable with the right game plan.”
The team also faces a “horrendously hard” draw, Cleaver said. “It’s a dogfight to even get to the semifinals.”
New Zealand is in Pool A with France and could face South Africa or Ireland, both in Pool B, in the quarterfinals.
But even if they do not win the World Cup, the return to a measure of success has scrambled the expected story line, in which a broken team would crash out of the tournament and be rebuilt by Scott Robertson, who is set to replace Foster as head coach.
The turn in the All Blacks’ fortunes may change Robertson’s mission from transformation to solidification, a surprising reversal for the charismatic coach of the Crusaders, New Zealand’s most dominant regional team, who might have expected greater latitude to stamp his vision upon the national side.
The recent victories, setting aside the loss to the Springboks, also represent a partial vindication for Foster, Cleaver said, who will depart after the World Cup. Given the pressure he has dealt with, “How could you not be pleased for him?” he said.
The ultimate vindication would be to lift the World Cup trophy: something only three other New Zealand head coaches have been able to achieve.
“It would mean a lot for us to win the World Cup. That’s our goal,” Foster recently said. “We know how tough it’s going to be.”