John Kirwan's honesty hits right spot

SIR JOHN KIRWAN: "They're [the Waratahs] under the pump, they're desperate, they've got a coach saying this is a war, and they've got a good enough football team to beat anyone."
SIR JOHN KIRWAN: "They're [the Waratahs] under the pump, they're desperate, they've got a coach saying this is a war, and they've got a good enough football team to beat anyone."

We've never had a top level rugby coach in New Zealand like Sir John Kirwan.

There are the blindingly obvious differences. No head coach has ever been a knight. No head coach has been a campaigner for mental health, or been open about dealing with his own depression.

But the real differences go way deeper.

No coach has ever been such a citizen of the world as Kirwan, a man so steeped in Italian life and culture he now often dreams in the language.

And no coach has ever revealed himself to his team with such naked honesty.

Last Wednesday night at Eden Park, as a guest of Sir Peter Leitch at a men's health trust fundraiser, I watched, fascinated, as Kirwan addressed a packed house, which included every member of his Blues squad.

He spoke for more than 20 minutes without notes, plunging into areas our traditional bloke coaches would approach with all the joy they'd bring to a prostate examination.

"What does love mean to you?" was one Kirwan question that will have never passed another coach's lips in public. As he urged men to be unafraid to seek expert medical help, he said that "some of the toughest men I played with were actually the weakest, because they wouldn't address their weaknesses and get help for them".

Love? Weakness? Help? Surely, especially among the youthful rugby players in the room, there'd be at least a trace of schoolboy squirm?

Not even a hint. The half dozen players I could see were, like the rest of the audience, riveted by every word. At the end one said quietly, "You can see why we love his team talks."

Kirwan has always been an interesting man. When I first met him in 1983 he was a gangly teenager with the most impeccable manners.

Credit his parents, both called Pat, and both warm, lovely people, for his good behaviour. The teenage John worked in his father's Onehunga butcher's shop, and his dad, who sadly has since passed away, drilled into him the importance of always being courteous to everyone.

That innate decency stood by him when he became a rugby superstar at the first world cup in 1987. By then, at 22, it was clear he had an inquiring mind, and wouldn't be satisfied with a life confined to considering the best lines to attack off a blindside pass.

For the cover of his first book John Kirwan's Rugby World, in 1987, he enlisted the design help of pop artist Billy Apple, a Kiwi who had become an associate of Andy Warhol in New York. It's rumoured one team-mate wondered why he'd got a fruiterer to do the design.

By 1989 he was changing the public perception of the All Blacks, by working with his De La Salle College schoolmate, Ric Salizzo, on a behind-the-scenes tour video,The Good, The Bad, and The Rugby.

And now, at 48, he's taking on the biggest rebuild in New Zealand sport, getting Auckland to fall in love with the Blues again.

So far, so very good. His results are already so startling he laughed out loud after the Crusaders game when a journalist suggested Kirwan was one who wouldn't have been surprised by the fact two Super Rugby bonus points are already under the belt. "It's a surprise all right," said Kirwan. "When Ali [Williams] and I first got together over a cappuccino before the season started, if you'd told us we'd be here after two rounds we'd have thought you were joking."

There's obviously a terrific synergy between Kirwan and his fellow knight, Sir Graham Henry. Take Kirwan, almost bursting with positive energy, and Henry, one of the great analytical minds in the game, and it feels like having the Dalai Lama out front, while Napoleon plots in the back room for you.

Where they'll be as one is that the Blues are still a work in progress. The lineout on Friday night was as disorganised as a bad Harlem Shake video, and the Crusaders did them a favour by managing to drop or knock on virtually every crucial pass.

Back in 2003, after the Blues had belted the Crusaders 39-5 in the opening game, scoring five tries, Robbie Deans, his lips as thin as a boning knife, noted that Super Rugby was "a marathon, not a sprint". Sure enough, when the Blues and the Crusaders met again, it was in the final, and although the Blues won, this time they had to eke out a four-point victory.

Ten years later, bet that this year's Crusaders will be back too. But don't let that detract from the fact that, in the Blues of 2013, the Auckland public have the chance to enjoy a team as fearless, exciting and dynamic as the 86 Baby Blacks, a team in which, spookily enough, a 21-year-old John Kirwan was one of the most experienced members.

Sunday Star Times