All Blacks coach Ian Foster praised the “phenomenal” leadership from his senior players after they delivered an emphatic first-up 42-19 victory over Ireland at Eden Park on Saturday night to open their season in style.
The six tries to three victories was far from perfect, with the All Blacks effectively putting the game on ice with a four-try second-quarter burst, but it was pretty satisfying from where Foster sat after spending the entire buildup in isolation in his Waikato home.
Foster was one of four New Zealand coaches laid low by Covid-19 for the week, with three players also ruled out as well. He and his chief assistant, John Plumtree, both only joined the All Blacks on match day in Auckland, with the players making a point throughout the week of reaffirming that they had taken ownership of much of the buildup.
“It was the first test, and it’s good to have a good win under your belt,” said Foster of a largely impressive effort underpinned by a big-time response from his forwards. “We stated before this series was really big for us. When you look at the bigger picture it’s a chance to play a team we’ve got massive respect for, we know is doing really well and bringing them down here for three in a row is pretty special.
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“It started off well with the preparation we’ve had, with bodies after Super Rugby … given the short time period we just focused on enough to keep minds busy but not too much to get them cloudy. Overall I’m delighted.
“I thought the work of Sam [Cane] and our leaders this week was phenomenal. They took on a big load, and [assistant coach] and Brad [Mooar] did an awesome job on the ground. It was a very unique week, and to be involved in coaching an All Blacks team from Zoom at home and still be married at the end of the week, I’m pretty satisfied.”
But Foster also felt the Irish showed enough in defeat to confirm they remain very much a contender in this series. They forced the All Blacks to make 191 tackles, won nearly 60 percent of the ball and were held up three or four times over the New Zealand line. The second half played out with two tries a piece, and the home side soaking up plenty of pressure.
“I thought we saw a very determined Irish team tonight,” added Foster. “They would have had enough glimpses of good moments in that first quarter in particular, and the way they finished, to walk away with a bit of hope.
“While we were ruthless with where we scored points, we were put under a lot of pressure, and particularly defensively I would have just given us just a pass mark. I thought our goal-line stuff was excellent, but we allowed them too many opportunities to get in behind us.”
But Foster did have praise for stand-in No 6 Scott Barrett, who led the All Blacks with 20 tackles, as well as a little dig at the critics who questioned the wisdom of repeating the failed World Cup semifinal experiment of 2019.
“He’s a good footballer, and we thought one of the form forwards of Super Rugby,” said the coach. “I know most of that form was at lock, and a little bit at 6. It was a role that suited us today. He carries well, he defends well, and contributed to a pretty good set piece.
“He should be pretty proud of it. There was a bit of circumstance around the selection, and it certainly sped up an idea we’ve had in that space. Hopefully there’s another game now for everyone to talk about rather that the other one they talk about when he played 6.”
Foster also had no issue with the 42% possession his team was reduced to on a night when the Irish applied plenty of pressure.
“It’s not a target we chase,” he said. “Possession is not always an indicator of the game you want to play, and probably the 8% we were short was all those pick and goes near the goal-line that seemed to go on and on forever. Overall I think how we used our ball today was pretty effective and that’s more important for us.”
The two sides will both head to Dunedin on Sunday for next Saturday’s second test in the series, with Ireland still chasing their first ever victory in New Zealand.