Stepping out of someone else’s shadows and into the spotlight can often be a difficult transition for assistant coaches in rugby.
Some are naturally more suited to being a ‘number two’ rather than the main voice in the changing room and the media than others.
Ian Foster’s appointment has already been exposed to the sort of scrutiny that comes as part of the territory as All Blacks head coach – before a ball has even been kicked.
The credentials of the Crusaders’ multiple Super Rugby title-winning coach, Scott Robertson, have been well-documented. But the New Zealand Rugby hierarchy instead opted to promote from within, entrusting Foster with the job of restoring the All Blacks to the top of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings, a position they held for all but the final few weeks of his time working alongside Steve Hansen.
His own man
During their time together from the end of 2011, the All Blacks won 93 of 108 tests and lost just 10 – an 86 per cent win rate.
While Foster’s time in charge of the Chiefs did not deliver any silverware, his All Blacks record is without dispute.
But to describe Foster simply as a safe pair of hands would be a misnomer. Present All Blacks are said to be excited at his appointment because he is not afraid to be his own man and change the things that need changing.
As a coach with a backs background, Foster will look at the way England’s fast line speed caused New Zealand so many problems in the semi-finals of Rugby World Cup 2019.
For the first time in the tournament’s history, the All Blacks were kept scoreless at half-time, with the likes of Maro Itoje and a dynamic back-row duo of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill – a deadly combination later referred to as Undercurry – constantly in their faces.
Reinventing the wheel and staying one step ahead of the game has always been a trait of the All Blacks and it will be fascinating to see what tricks Foster has up his sleeve now that his tenure is finally set to begin.
“I think they’ll try and go in their own direction and have different ideas,” said respected New Zealand rugby TV pundit and Auckland coach, Dan Bowden.
“I know not everyone was a fan of how they played at the World Cup, so I think they’ll look to readdress certain things.
“Against England, they had two runners off nine, but I don’t think it was as effective as they were hoping, and England managed to pick them off relatively easily.
“They’ve brought in John Plumtree, who was obviously with the Hurricanes, and Brad Mooar has experience in Europe with the Scarlets, so I think he’ll be quite important in that space.
“It’ll just change naturally because you’ll have different people delivering different messages.
“It’s a bit of a new dawn as such, I think it’ll be quite refreshing with the way they are going to play.”
New head coaches don’t just bring in new backroom teams, the start of a new regime normally coincides with a host of fresh faces in the playing squad, too.
Bowden is excited at the prospect of seeing the likes of the uncapped duo, winger Caleb Clarke and second-row Tupou Vaa’i, on the big stage.
Vaa’i would be the first player to play for the All Blacks born after 2000 if Foster turns to him in the face of a second-row injury crisis.
Brodie Retallick (sabbatical) and Scott Barrett and Quentin Strange (injury) are among those unavailable to the new head coach.
“I coached Caleb in the last couple of games for Auckland and he is a phenomenal athlete; he is about 105-106 kgs and can run like the wind. He is incredible, and Will Jordan is the same,” the former Blues playmaker said.
“Vaa’i played in the Under-19 tournament here last year and he dominated that. I’m guessing at some stage he might get a crack.
“He will be a bit of a star when he gets a few games under his belt.”
Cane, very able
While Foster’s second-row resources are relatively depleted, he is blessed in the back-row department.
Ardie Savea, Dalton Papali'i, Hoskins Sotutu, Shannon Frizell and Akira Ioane are just some of the high-quality names in the mix, while Lachlan Boshier and Tom Christie missed out despite impressive Super Rugby Aotearoa campaigns.
So it says a lot about how highly rated Sam Cane is as a leader that the Chiefs openside was named as Foster’s captain before rugby even restarted.
With former captain Kieran Read and other experienced heads now retired, it was important Foster appointed someone who commanded the respect of the group, and Cane does.
"Sam is an experienced All Black with eight years in the team now and is a 'follow me' type of leader and a very good thinker in the game. He has a natural ability to connect with everyone in the team and is straightforward and direct when he needs to be,” Foster said at the time of his appointment.
"There's massive respect for Sam amongst the players and management, and he's perfectly placed to lead the All Blacks into the future."
Cane is no stranger to the role, either, having captained the All Blacks on three occasions between the last two Rugby World Cups.
The 28-year-old from Rotorua has a 100 per cent winning record in the role, with wins against Namibia (58-14) at RWC 2015, Italy (68-10) in 2016 and Argentina (20-16) in July last year.
Rather than fill the shoes of Hansen and Read, Foster and Cane will look to tread their own paths.