End of an All Blacks era leaves Scott Robertson with a clean slate

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To move forward, you must look back.

Behind the scenes Scott Robertson is quietly settling into the All Blacks head coaching role he long coveted, having officially assumed the reins at the start of November.

To appreciate the challenge Robertson and his new-look coaching team face next year, we must first reflect on Ian Foster's All Blacks tenure like no other.

Foster's four-year term was largely beset by a backdrop of discontent - and characterised by an inner defiance. From the outset Foster was never welcomed by the New Zealand public after being promoted from Steve Hansen's long-serving assistant coach following the 2019 World Cup semifinal defeat.

The mood for change was firmly behind Robertson and while Foster confronted COVID challenges, his first two-and-a-half years at the helm did little to dampen the detractors.

The All Blacks' first loss in history to the Pumas in 2020 and successive defeats to Ireland and France on their 2021 northern tour fuelled the pro-Robertson brigade. Full scale panic then set in after the historic home series loss to Ireland in mid-2022 that forced Foster to axe two assistant coaches, John Plumtree and Brad Mooar.

The widespread fallout from the Irish series wasn't so much a turning point - as further, frequent fluctuations would come - but it did mark definitive change to launch the All Blacks rebuild.

Hiring Jason Ryan, Robertson's right-hand man at the Crusaders, as forwards coach proved transformative. In his first press call Ryan admitted the All Blacks pack had been dented. He immediately overhauled that downgraded reputation, particularly at the set-piece and maul.

With Ryan on board the All Blacks travelled to South Africa for a defining two-Test tour. After the one-sided loss in Mbombela, Foster needed victory at Ellis Park to save his tenure as New Zealand Rugby executives sounded out Robertson to prepare his team.

The All Blacks conjured a backs-to-the-wall triumph at altitude, senior players confronted NZ Rugby boss Mark Robinson at his Johannesburg hotel room and, in another telling move, Joe Schmidt agreed to join Foster as a full-time assistant with a brief that would extend to everything from the breakdown to defence and attack.

Two days after arriving home, Foster and his significantly remodelled coaching team were confirmed to lead the All Blacks through to the World Cup.

Foster's future as head coach, though, effectively ended when NZ Rugby signalled at the start of this year they would appoint the next All Blacks head coach prior to the World Cup. Robertson was confirmed as Foster's successor but, before that changing of the guard, the All Blacks had a World Cup to contest.

Set against the backdrop of being widely written off and pushed out by his employer, Foster set about attempting to pull off the most unlikely World Cup success the game had seen.

Despite traversing more historic lows, including the All Blacks' largest defeat to the Springboks at Twickenham and their first World Cup pool stage defeat, Foster's resolve never wavered.

The All Blacks adopted a siege-mentality to shun the outside world and drill down into significantly improving their defence and breakdown work through their three remaining pool games to set up a quarterfinal rematch with Ireland.

This was a match the All Blacks waited 15 months for. After being picked apart and embarrassed at home they had designed a defensive system specifically for the world No 1. All the adversity was worth it as the All Blacks overcame two yellow cards to end Ireland's 17-Test unbeaten run in a revenge-tinged performance that ranks among their best World Cup knockout wins.

While Foster's All Blacks fell one agonising point short of the ultimate redemption against the Springboks in the final, with discipline proving their undoing, they exceeded all expectations to reach that stage. Foster concluded his turbulent - almost triumphant - tenure with 32 wins, 12 losses, and two draws for a 69.5% win record that places him 17th among All Blacks coaches who led four Tests or more. Schmidt, defence coach Scott McLeod, scrum coach Greg Feek as well as many in the long-serving wider management join Foster on the way out the door in the largest sea change the All Blacks will experience in two decades.

Schmidt and Foster leave as free agents, taking a wheelbarrow load of IP with them - possibly to another international competitor.

Given the animosity Foster had with the way in which NZ Rugby conducted Robertson's pre-World Cup appointment, the transition promises a completely clean slate. There will be no shared dossier exchanged.

Robertson now assumes the baton amid a drastically altered landscape.

The All Blacks have morphed from a team who were, a little more than a year ago, at a low ebb to one that could've, should've, won the World Cup.

Expectations on the All Blacks are always exceedingly high. That is the fabric the team is built on.

Robertson is well liked, certainly in comparison to Foster's introduction, but he, too, will soon discover there is no honeymoon as All Blacks head coach.

Robertson's inexperienced All Blacks coaching team includes Scott Hansen, Leon MacDonald, Jason Holland and Ryan - the latter the only member with limited Test experience.

That group will bring a fresh vision but they will inevitably make mistakes. As with any post-World Cup era they must navigate the departures of several legends - Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith and Dane Coles among them. Leicester Fainga'anuku, Shannon Frizell and Nepo Laulala leave other sizable holes to fill. Sam Cane and Ardie Savea will need to be reintegrated from their six-month sabbaticals in Japan - and Beauden Barrett is yet to determine his future beyond a one-season stint in the same league. Regenerating the All Blacks with the next tier of talent will be easier in some positions than others. Damian McKenzie will slot in at first five-eighth next year - yet at Test level he remains unproven there.

Along with juggling those balls, cultivating a new culture and relationships Robertson must settle on his captain - likely to be Scott Barrett with a view to the next World Cup - as he readies the All Blacks for England's arrival in July.

Anyone expecting Robertson's revamped All Blacks to brush off those influential absences and dominate from the off should recalibrate those unrealistic visions.

Change breeds interest, enthusiasm and a sense of the unknown. Test rugby is a completely different beast to Super. The Crusaders are not the All Blacks. Robertson's task over the southern summer months is to swiftly absorb the delicate lessons from Foster's tenure.

If the last four years have taught us anything, it's there is no one-size-fits manual to charting success on the treacherous Test scene.