All Blacks keeping ranks closed ahead of Ireland showdown
Rugby World Cup: Attack coach Ian Foster was not giving much away on Tuesday
Nepo Laulala of the All Blacks runs through drills during a training session ahead of the Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Ireland. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
The All Blacks were in typically secure and relaxed mode for their Tuesday media day, while giving little or nothing away. Unless Steve Hansen is holding court as only he can, there tends not to be much meat on the bones and this was no different.
Their format of two men double briefings is not conducive to in-depth comments, while attack coach Ian Foster acted like someone who was not especially thrilled to be in front of a forest of microphones.
Initially he was asked for his reaction to Bundee Aki’s three-game suspension – ruling him out of the entire knockout stages were Ireland to win this quarter-final, which World Rugby and independent judiciary panels seem not to realise is akin to about six months of a normal domestic season – and that perhaps set Foster off on the wrong foot given the criticism he provoked with comments about the player before the sides’ most recent meeting last November.
“My reaction to it? I haven’t really got a reaction to it as I’m pretty much focussed on what we do but it’s pretty consistent with what we’ve seen at this tournament.”
Asked if he had sympathy for the Auckland-born Irish centre, he more or less repeated the same answer.
When asked why if Andy Farrell’s defensive systems have proved awkward for the All Blacks, given that under his influence England, Ireland (twice) and the Lions have all beaten New Zealand, Foster said: “I don’t know, you’ve to ask Andy that. He just does a job based on what he sees and we do a job based on what we see.”
Did Farrell’s defence systems mix up their pictures or scramble particularly well?
“You’ll just have to ask him. We’ll play what we see.”
Nor was the All Blacks’ attack coach much interested in being asked about Ireland’s attack game largely going through Johnny Sexton.
“I’m actually the attack coach, we should have brought the defence coach over here,” he initially responded. “Look, every team has got their strengths and weaknesses. We know Sexton is important to their team and we know that a lot of the ball does go through his hands. That’s clear and obvious, everyone knows that.
“Look, they’re a smart rugby team and they’ve proven that. People can say what they like about their attacking style and defensive style but they’re efficient and they do it well. That’s what makes it really exciting for us because we’re playing a team that knows how to play and what greater challenge could you have?”
As to whether Schmidt might have a trick up his sleeve for this fifth set decider, Foster said: “I don’t mean to be rude but you’re asking me to guess what another coach is thinking. Really, you’ve got to ask him. We’re assuming, based on past behaviour, that they’ll come out with a plan which they think is good enough to beat us. Will that involve some special plays? Probably.”
Foster was also asked to explain New Zealand’s defeat to Ireland last November.
“I can’t remember it,” he answered initially, before admitting wryly: “No, that’s not true. We just got beat by a good Irish team. That was a different time, different place, is it relevant? Perhaps, they would have learned some stuff, we learned some stuff.
“We actually don’t get too stuck in the past, it’s more about the challenge that’s in front of us. This is a World Cup knockout game and it’s actually about what happens this week, not what happened in the last two years. We know everyone comes for us every time we play.”
One topic which did rock his boat was whether teams might now play more conservatively in the knockout stages, although the All Blacks and Japan, to name two, surely won’t.
“That’s a good question,” said Foster. “It’s where you go when you’re under pressure, isn’t it? That’s the exciting part about this part of the tournament. We still want to be confident enough to play the pictures that we see and trust the guys to execute and make decisions but sometimes pressure can do funny things to people and you can eliminate all the risk out of your game.
“That’s the balance, that’s the exciting part about knockouts, getting players really clear that, if they see pictures, are they allowed execute? Yes they are.”
Japan kicked only 12 times against Scotland, but Foster did not believe that teams who have kicked less are doing better in this World Cup.
“I don’t think there’s one tactic that is good or bad. It’s how you use it in a game. We’ve got a do-or-die game against Ireland, they’re a high-retention team so they like to hold the ball and they’ll use the kick when they feel they’re under pressure or sense weakness.
“We’re not expecting a barrage of kicking, we’re expecting a team which will want to hold the ball, a lot of rucks and a lot of tackles. That’s their style and we’ve just got to prepare for what we see on Saturday and play our game.”