No All Blacks honeymoon for Scott Robertson

Scott Robertson at an All Blacks gym session and media opportunity. Photo: Getty Images
Scott Robertson at an All Blacks gym session and media opportunity. Photo: Getty Images
Confirmation of the All Blacks’ bumper test campaign sets the scene for Scott Robertson’s challenging first year at the helm, while underlining the ever-increasing commercial pressure points engulfing the national team.

Fourteen tests across nine countries promises to probe the All Blacks depth and resilience following the departure of six veterans – three centurions – who featured in last year’s World Cup final.

This year’s schedule that includes six tests against the world’s top five nations will throw Robertson’s new-look All Blacks straight into the fire, with two tours to reveal exactly where they stand in the global pecking order.

Successive tests against the world champion Springboks at Ellis Park and Cape Town headlines the test season and Rugby Championship. The atmosphere, the altitude, the history. Nothing compares to facing the Boks in Africa. The World Cup final rematch narrative will further fuel rugby’s greatest rivalry this year.

The November northern tour that features England, Ireland and France in three successive weeks is the other huge task to bookend Robertson’s maiden year in charge.

Ireland in particular, following their agonising World Cup quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks in Paris, will be desperate for revenge in Dublin.

As always, there are winners and losers from any test schedule.

The decision to stage the All Blacks third test in July against Fiji in San Diego is a money-making venture for both nations.

Discussions were held about playing Fiji home and away but, clearly, the dollars did not compare to those on offer in the States.

“We’d love to play a test in Fiji at some stage, no doubt, but there are a few different reasons why we couldn’t make that happen in the timeframe and that meant we drew back to one game and then ultimately the best thing to do, for a variety of reasons, was to take it offshore to the west coast of the States,” New Zealand Rugby (NZR) boss Mark Robinson said.

Two tests in July – as opposed to the usual three – does, however, leave the All Blacks with five appearances at home this year.

With Dunedin staging the season opener against the Owen Farrell-less England, and Auckland and Wellington hosting the All Blacks twice, Hamilton and Christchurch are left out in the cold this year.

“It’s a balancing act,” Robinson said. “We know we’ve got some amazing fixtures coming next year when you look at France coming here. We’ll have South Africa here twice. We’ve got that on the radar to make sure we can balance the commercial imperatives as well as connecting with as many fans as we can.”

This year’s ventures to San Diego and Tokyo, the latter en route to Europe after NZR last year signed a memorandum understanding with Japan, ensures the national body will bank two offshore paydays to boost coffers.

And as Saudi Arabian investors seek to purchase stakes in four of England’s top-flight rugby clubs, the All Blacks staging a controversial test in the Middle East appears closer than ever.

This year’s schedule, while featuring no major surprises, ensures there is no such notion as a honeymoon period as All Blacks coach.

Despite their influential deflections, the All Blacks will be expected to account for Steve Borthwick’s England (twice), Argentina (twice) under new coach Felipe Contepomi and the Wallabies in their five home tests.

Joe Schmidt’s awkward presence leading the Wallabies is sure to reignite the Bledisloe Cup in Wellington, where the All Blacks last won in 2018, and Sydney after he was left disillusioned with the way in which NZR handled the timing of Robertson’s appointment prior to the World Cup last year.

Schmidt, shifting from All Blacks assistant under Ian Foster to Wallabies head coach, is staking his reputation on a daunting rebuild mission after Eddie Jones led Australia to their first World Cup pool stage exit.

Much will depend on the quality of Schmidt’s coaching staff – and whether he can lure back the likes of respected attack coach Scott Wisemantel who left after Dave Rennie’s ill-conceived removal.

Aside from Schmidt’s presence there could be other nervous glances north, too, as Tony Brown prepares to lead the Springboks attack under Rassie Erasmus and former highly rated Crusaders assistant Andrew Goodman starts his role leading Ireland’s backs in Andy Farrell’s coaching team.

While New Zealanders coaching abroad is nothing new Schmidt, Brown and Goodman represent a high degree of intellectual property that could pose problems for the All Blacks as they seek to immediately regenerate.

With Robertson taking charge, though, NZR is projecting a successful year.

“He’s had a number of the squad members in early. He’s getting around and connecting with a wide range of people in the game. He’s deeply ingrained in some of the work we’re doing here and looking at some of our programmes,” Robinson said.

“I know he’ll want to go out and be hugely successful and we’re doing everything we can to support him. We’re enjoying the fact fresh ideas and energy is coming into the game.”

All Blacks’ 2024 test schedule:

  • July 6: v England (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
  • July 13: v England (Eden Park, Auckland)
  • July 20: v Fiji (SnapDragon Stadium, San Diego)
  • August 10: v Argentina (Sky Stadium, Wellington)
  • August 17: v Argentina (Eden Park, Auckland)
  • August 31: v South Africa (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
  • September 7: v South Africa (DHL Stadium, Cape Town)
  • September 21: v Australia (Stadium Australia, Sydney)
  • September 28: v Australia (Sky Stadium, Wellington)
  • October 26: v Japan (Nissan Stadium, Yokohama)
  • November 2: v England (Twickenham, London)
  • November 9: v Ireland (venue TBC)
  • November 16: v France (venue TBC)
  • November 23: v Italy (venue TBC)

By Liam Napier