Slumping All Blacks face Argentina as fans lose patience
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The All Blacks face another challenging Rugby Championship test against Argentina on Saturday, desperate to halt a three-match losing streak at home while fans go through stages of despair over the worst slump in the team’s 119-year history.
New Zealand incurred losses to Ireland and France at the end of last season, then lost at home to Ireland for the first time and went on to lose that series. Then the All Blacks lost to South Africa, then for the first time at home to Argentina.
That’s shifted the mood of fans from denial, anger and depression to acceptance.
In a concerning development for the team and New Zealand Rugby, fans now appear to have moved on to a new stage: cynicism. A New Zealand newspaper dubbed the team under head coach Ian Foster “Foster’s Imposters,” capturing the mood of many fans which soon might even lapse into ridicule.
Foster has continued to insist his team is not far away from the level of performance fans expect. But his messaging has been mixed. On one hand Foster says the All Blacks team is going through major change which will take time to achieve, but on the other he says only minor improvements are needed to reach winning form.
Foster at times has listed inexperience among the All Blacks’ problems, though two members of last weekend’s starting 15 against the Pumas had played more than 100 tests and four more had played more than 50.
He has struggled to convince fans that he has a clear understanding of the causes of the team’s form slump and has a remedy. Instead, he has called on fans to be patient.
“It’s frustrating I’m sure for the viewers and the fans and it’s frustrating for us,” he said. “We have got a lot of faith that some of the things we’re building are paying dividends but it needs to happen quickly. We know that.
“It seems we’re taking a couple of steps forward and then one step back so that is frustrating. We are trying to build some new stuff there but we just have to keep working on that.”
Foster has named the same starting 15 for New Zealand’s last three tests — a 35-23 win over South Africa in Johannesburg, the 25-18 loss to Argentina last weekend and for Saturday’s match at Hamilton. He has emphasized the importance of consistency as the bedrock for improvement, but the All Blacks also face the danger of becoming predictable.
The All Blacks have twice changed their attack coach in recent weeks but their attacking play continues to lack innovation. That allowed the Pumas’ defense to shut down the All Blacks in the second half of last week’s match; though New Zealand carried the ball for 420 meters it couldn’t decisively break the Argentina line.
Foster had a chance to change that with minor alterations to his team. He could have named Finlay Christie at scrumhalf whose strength and running game would have forced Argentina to re-organize its defense. Instead, Foster has sometimes become peevish in the face of mounting criticism.
“We just need as much support as we can get now,” he said. “It’s hurting and if people want to get angry that’s their choice.”
The Pumas now have the chance to match Ireland by beating the All Blacks in back-to-back tests in New Zealand. It’s something that in past might have been unthinkable. But teams now are willing to consider those possibilities which shows how much the All Blacks’ aura of invincibility has faded.
Argentina coach Michael Cheika said the Pumas still are “about as underdog as they get,” but adds “the guys need to believe we can do it, and we need to go into the game with that attitude.”
New Zealand: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Shannon Frizell, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Tyrel Lomax, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Dane Coles, George Bower, Fletcher Newell, Brodie Retallick, Dalton Papali’i, Finlay Christie, Beauden Barrett, Quinn Tupaea.
Argentina: Juan Cruz Mallia, Emiliano Boffelli, Matias Moroni, Matias Orlando, Santiago Cordero, Santiago Carreras, Tomas Cubelli; Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Santiago Grondona, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Joel Sclavi, Julian Montoya (captain), Thomas Gallo. Reserves: Santiago Socino, Mayco Vivas, Eduardo Bello, Matias Alemanno, Juan Martin Gonzalez, Gonzalo Bertranou, Benjamin Urdapilleta, Lucio Cinto.
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