Ireland pulled the first brick out of the wall in Dublin last year, kicked a few more out in Dunedin this year and then in Wellington the whole wall came tumbling down and the All Blacks’ empire sits now as dust and rubble.
Ireland didn’t just win a series in New Zealand, they forced a national crises: an almost unprecedented time of hysteria about the All Blacks even amongst a history of mad moments where the public have entirely lost the plot.
Barely half an hour after Ireland had wrapped up the series with their brilliantly executed 33-22 win in Wellington, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster was facing media questions about whether he was the right man for the job.
He batted off the first attempt with, “I just want to talk about this test match”. When they kept coming, the All Blacks media manager stepped in to say no more questions and then the next day, unilaterally cancelled, without consultation or communication, the scheduled press briefing with Foster.
It was unbelievably naïve crisis management – the failure to front up leading to Foster being splashed all over the evening news, pictures of him glumly and angrily making his way on to the team bus with unwanted cameras thrust in his face asking him why he’d refused to talk to the media.
It had the look of the accused trying to make his way into the courthouse ahead of the trial and the situation only worsened for the incumbent coaching team when New Zealand Rugby chief executive, Mark Robinson, unsolicited, released a statement to the media branding the team’s performance in the series as “unacceptable”.
“We all know there is a huge amount of work to do,” Robinson, himself a former All Black, went on to say.
“Our focus now is to work with Ian and his team to understand thoroughly in advance of the Rugby Championship what is needed to improve performance and where to from here. We will begin this work immediately.”
Two days later, the media manager posted on LinkedIn, saying: “For the record, I decided not to demand that All Blacks head coach Ian Foster front late on Sunday morning. Not him. I felt he needed a day or so to work out what he wanted to say and not just be a punching bag for the media, who let’s be clear, wanted blood.
“Ian Foster and Sam Cane have been bagged so much in the media, I felt they needed a little space to think. My bad? Hindsight? I’ll take that hit. I am here to look after people as well as do comms.”
The threshold had been reached to declare the state of the game to be in chaos; the All Blacks drifting without any sense of direction or purpose, a public becoming increasingly estranged from the team they so love and the NZR executive flapping about with only vague and befuddled ideas about how to fix things.
And while it is the All Blacks coaching team who are under the most intense scrutiny and seen as the root of all problems from poor performances to high inflation, it is the national body’s leadership and governance team that should be the greater source of angst.
The collapse of the empire has been coming. Ireland were the last straw as it were – the team good enough to prise open the cracks and smash the All Blacks down – but the foundations have been weakening since early 2019 when New Zealand Rugby made the first of many catastrophic decisions.
Former All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen announced in December 2018 that he would not be seeking reappointment after the 2019 World Cup. But despite giving his employer more than a year’s notice, NZR decided not to begin the process of recruiting their next head coach until after the World Cup.
It was a crazy decision to wait as in the meantime, Australia hired Dave Rennie, Wales snared Wayne Pivac, Fiji got Vern Cotter and Japan retained Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown.
By December 2019, NZR only had two men to choose from – Foster and the enigmatic Scott Robertson, who was a fan favourite after winning three consecutive Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, but who didn’t have any international experience.
The bigger problem about waiting so long, however, was that neither Foster nor Robertson were able to present strong assistants and specialists as part of their package because so many people had been snapped up by other countries.
Foster initially had Joseph and Brown on his ticket but, when Japan held on to them, he was forced to scramble a team together and arguably that is the problem the All Blacks now face – they have a good head coach but one who currently doesn’t have the right calibre of personnel around him.
The second major mistake made by the administration came in early 2021 when they publicly announced they were close to agreeing a private equity deal with a US fund manager called Silver Lake – who would be buying a 15 per cent stake in New Zealand Rugby for NZ$465m (€283m).
The deal would see a new company created that would house all NZR’s commercial assets such as broadcast and sponsorship revenue, merchandise sales, digital properties and ticket income.
But it transpired this initial deal had been negotiated without the consent of the players who are employed under a Collective Employment Agreement, and under law, must agree to any material change in their work conditions.
The reason the players hadn’t been consulted was that NZR tried to broker the deal on a significantly lower pay deal for the country’s elite performers – reducing their legally binding right to share 36.5 per cent of the game’s total revenue to 30 per cent.
It led to public and bitter debates with NZR chairman Brent Impey calling former All Black captain David Kirk, who is the chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association, “disingenuous” on a national radio show and then telling the players they would be, “scoring the greatest own goal in the history of sport”, if they rejected the deal.
The players did indeed reject that deal and for much of 2021 they were in conflict with their employer until a resolution was reached early this year with a greatly revamped proposition that has preserved the payment pool at 36.5 per cent and reduced the equity being sold to 5.8 per cent in a $200m transaction.
And it is arguably this deal with Silver Lake which has changed the complexion of the landscape.
It has been agreed in principle, ratified by the players and provincial unions but is not yet signed off as the long-form documentation – the hundreds of pages worth of legalese and fine print – have not yet been drawn up.
For this deal to work, millions of new All Blacks fans need to be found. That’s what Silver Lake have bought into – this idea that they can use their access to the finest brains in Silicon Valley to use clever technology to engage what they say is a dormant fan base scattered all over the world.
The American investors believe there could be as many as 60 millions All Blacks fans – people hooked by the tradition and legacy of the team. People who love how much the All Blacks win, how resourceful and resilient they are and how incredibly they have, over the course of history, found ways to reinvent themselves and bounce back on the occasions they have faced adversity.
NZR have risked so much to make this deal happen and having endured a nasty bout of internecine politics and discord with their squad, they now, with the paperwork almost finished and the first $100m due to be paid by the end of this year, find their prized asset All Blacks in a state of disarray, one that can’t presumably be allowed to persist.
The question being asked in the boardroom is now whether things have to change inside the All Blacks, but how much change is necessary?
Foster and his current coaching team – which includes Joe Schmidt who is formally on board now that Ireland have departed – will be in charge for the two upcoming Tests in South Africa.
But when they get back, regardless of what happens in the Republic, it is probable there will be coaching casualties.
The recommendation may be for elective surgery so to speak and intriguingly it may be a case of a big taste of Ireland coming in with Schmidt but a bigger taste being kicked out as scrum coach Greg Feek and forwards coach John Plumtree are the two men seen to be the most vulnerable to losing their jobs.
The possibility of wholesale change is also on the cards – with a hard cleanout (excluding Schmidt) to make way for Robertson and his choice of assistants.
Whatever happens, Ireland have shown that the All Blacks can’t trundle on as they are because if they do and the two countries do indeed meet in the World Cup quarter-final next year, the men in green will be celebrating having made yet one more piece of history.