Crusaders coach Scott Robertson. Photo / Photosport
Scott Robertson is a free-thinking, unrestricted, breath-of-fresh-air, authentic character. But, in the eyes of the All Blacks, that’s not always a good thing. In part six of Inside the All Blacks Machine, Gregor Paul looks
at the complicated relationship between Razor and New Zealand Rugby.
There was a time earlier this year when Scott Robertson believed he was going to be in the UK this week, not with the Barbarians, but as head coach of the All Blacks.
For a week in August, he had every reason to believe he was going to take over coaching the All Blacks once they returned from South Africa.
He had been contacted by New Zealand Rugby after the All Blacks had lost to the Springboks in Mbombela on August 7.
It was the All Blacks’ fifth loss in their last six tests and NZR chief executive Mark Robinson’s faith in Foster was fading.
The pressure inside NZR was intense. Silver Lake had just deposited the first of their two $100m payments as part of their five percent equity transaction, and the defeats and bad publicity were piling up.
So too were there concerns internally about how new major sponsors Altrad and Ineos were feeling about having sunk close to $40m a year into the team.
Firing Foster was starting to look like the easiest and most effective way of appeasing the commercial heavyweights: of proving that definitive action was being taken to arrest the slump.
And bringing in Robertson would have been a populist move. Known universally as Razor, the former All Blacks loose forward has built a cult following since he took over as head coach of the Crusaders in 2017.
He’s coached for six seasons, won six titles, and he’s done things his way – with a touch of the unorthodox, best typified by the breakdancing routines he has busted out after the Crusaders have won each of their titles.
Razor isn’t anti-establishment, but he’s a figure that challenges it, not actively or consciously, but simply by being a little different to his coaching peers.
Robertson is quirky, uses themes for each campaign, connects well with young players – all his players – and most importantly, he produces supremely organised, cohesive, motivated rugby teams that enjoy consistent success.
At least half the country, maybe more, would like to see Razor coach the All Blacks, even if it’s just for the point of difference he would bring, which is why he was the only candidate approached in August to replace Foster.
NZR say that the terms under which they engaged Robertson were unambiguous – that he was told that he was not being offered the job, but was being asked, “in principle” to outline who he would want in his coaching team should it become available.
After presenting his likely team, Robertson was then asked to facilitate a meeting with current All Blacks assistant Joe Schmidt to see if the two could work together.
However clear it was that he hadn’t been offered the job, the Herald is aware that shortly after meeting Schmidt, Robertson was overheard speaking to someone on the phone in the Air New Zealand Koru lounge, suggesting that he thought he was about to be announced as the next All Blacks coach.
It is understood, however, that Robertson only became aware that he was not going to be injected into the head role at the same time everyone else found out, which was at a hurriedly scheduled press conference three days after the All Blacks returned from South Africa.
As the Herald has previously revealed, Schmidt wasn’t comfortable working with Robertson due to his loyalty to Foster and that had a major bearing on the board opting to stick with the status quo.
But there may have been other factors at play – other reasons why NZR shied away from giving the job to Razor, to leave him now touting himself around the world, and strongly linked to England, who want to appoint their next coach in May so they can have a few months in situ with incumbent Eddie Jones before taking over in 2024.
For all that Razor has a strong public following and support throughout the media, there may be division internally about whether he is the right fit for the All Blacks.
Perhaps inevitably given the volume of external investment in the All Blacks, there is now a war raging inside NZR to control the brand narrative of the team to shape the public perception of who they are.
It began last year, when it is understood Foster came under pressure from NZR’s commercial team to actively promote the second Bledisloe Cup test which was being played at Eden Park.
Ticket sales were sluggish, and it is believed conversations took place as to whether the All Blacks coach should have a social media profile to communicate directly with fans.
The Herald also became aware that there were attempts by NZR to micro-manage Foster’s media performances during the Irish series this year, and requests made that he display more vulnerability.
The brand story needed a more human face apparently and it appeared Foster finally succumbed to the pressure to stage-manage some media drama before heading to South Africa, when he opened a press conference at the airport by saying: “I am Ian Foster, and I am the All Blacks head coach. Let me tell you who I am, I’m strong, I’m resilient, I think I’ve proven that.”
It looked like he was affecting a style and tone that suited his employer rather than being himself, and Foster and his players are under pressure to conform to a brand strategy that is designed to engage fans and grow the All Blacks audience.
That pressure is being felt by an increasing number of requests to fulfil in-house media productions, with the All Blacks now carrying two full-time content producers with them around the world.
NZR is working to build a content bank ahead of launching its own OTT streaming platform, with a plan to generate 100 hours of viewing to support live broadcasts.
This is ultimately being driven by the arrival of Silver Lake, which believed there are millions of offshore All Blacks fans who could be engaged and monetised.
How the team presents to the public – domestic and international – has become hugely important in the quest to make money, and this is perhaps the real reason Razor remains out in the cold.
While there are influential figures within NZR who feel Razor is on brand – precisely the sort of free-thinking, unrestricted, breath-of-fresh-air, authentic character that will win rugby new fans, there are others who fear the traditions of the All Blacks could be eroded by a coach who breakdances and brings attention to himself.
Not everyone within NZR is ready for Razor yet, who may also not have endeared himself to this employer by turning down the opportunity to coach the All Blacks XV this November and then speaking openly – on a podcast with former Scotland lock Jim Hamilton – about his desire to coach two international sides to World Cup titles.
It was seen by some as a direct attempt to overtly pressure NZR into offering him the All Blacks job to keep him from going elsewhere.