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Polarising All Blacks boss Foster on verge of World Cup triumph

Whether the All Blacks win or lose against South Africa in Saturday's final, Foster will be out the door to make way for Scott Robertson, the succession foisted upon him more than five months before the tournament kicked off.

Foster can expect tributes and thanks from New Zealand Rugby (NZR) bosses when making his exit, some 12 years after joining the All Blacks setup as an assistant to Graham Henry.

Most will ring hollow.

The 58-year-old spoke in February of wanting "another crack" at the job if he brought the World Cup home, and asked NZR to park the coaching decision until after the tournament.

Unlike his former bosses Henry and Steve Hansen, each of whom coached New Zealand to two World Cups, winning one apiece, Foster was never given the option.

His army of critics applauded that decision. They have since retreated into the shadows during the All Blacks' run in France.

Still, Foster has far from won his country over.

Of more than 20,000 voters in an online poll carried by New Zealand news website Stuff on Wednesday, nearly two-thirds agreed NZR were right to shunt him in favour of Robertson.

Coaching is rarely a popularity contest but Foster's lack of it has been a hallmark of his four years in charge, and somewhat bemusing to neutral fans given the trove of silverware delivered on his watch.

There was little fanfare in rugby-mad New Zealand when he was given the top job after the 2019 World Cup in Japan, having beaten out the charismatic Robertson.

For better or worse, Foster was seen as a vote for continuity and an endorsement of a system set up by Graham and Hansen, similarly dour men in suits.

With the All Blacks dumped from the semi-finals in Japan, the system was already under strain when Foster took over.

Not that fans, pundits and media in New Zealand were willing to give him much of a break.

Sky-high expectations are inevitable in a country accustomed to near-constant success in rugby.

Foster finished his first year in charge under fire in 2020 after the All Blacks had their first ever loss to Argentina and were held to a draw on home soil by Australia in a COVID-plagued season.

Last year, it seemed the whole of New Zealand was lined up against him after the home series loss to Ireland and a first home defeat by the Pumas.

But he was spared by a NZR review which saw his assistant coaches fired instead.

For the most part, Foster handled the criticism with an abundance of class.

He never failed to defend his players or take responsibility for the rough patches.

He joked ruefully that he was glad to find his wife still loved him when he returned home to Hamilton in 2022.

Buttressed by new forwards coach Jason Ryan and the all-round nous of former Ireland boss Joe Schmidt, the All Blacks rallied after the Argentina setback, winning 10 of their next 11 matches.

Shrugging off defeat by France in the World Cup opener, they are now one victory away from a record fourth Webb Ellis Cup and a second on foreign soil.

Following the 44-6 demolition of Argentina in the semi-finals, Foster was asked to respond to his critics who he once labelled pretty "vicious".

He declined.

"There's not a personal agenda here. It's about the All Blacks and it's always about the team," he told reporters.

"Things have happened to individuals and the team -- and clearly they've happened to me -- but it doesn't change (anything).

"The team comes first."