Blues job a tough assignment for John Kirwan

HARD WORK AHEAD: John Kirwan deserves his shot at a big-time job on the New Zealand rugby scene.
HARD WORK AHEAD: John Kirwan deserves his shot at a big-time job on the New Zealand rugby scene.

Sir John Kirwan deserves his shot at a big-time job on the New Zealand rugby scene.

And it's appropriate that it comes with Eden Park as his HQ - a ground where he built his name as one of the great Auckland and All Blacks wings.

Kirwan, despite lengthy time abroad, is an iconic Aucklander. He's also an iconic Kiwi as his recent knighthood showed.

He is man with an outlook broader than just rugby though that is where the microscope will be placed on him from here.

Kirwan's time away came from circumstances. He was forced offshore to serve his coaching apprenticeship. That has been accomplished and now we wait to see if he can translate 14 years of work with a clipboard almost exclusively overseas into success with the tough job of rebuilding the once-mighty Blues into title contenders again.

This will be Kirwan's second stint with the franchise after his ill-fated 2001 season as assistant to head coach Frank Oliver.

That was an unlikely mix that always seemed destined to failure. Kirwan was hired on the back of three years coaching in the Japanese club scene with the NEC Green Rockets. He was still too green himself while Oliver never had an affinity with Auckland.

But now the fit looks far more comfortable as Kirwan arrives with considerable test experience under his belt with Italy and Japan.

The respect Kirwan enjoyed as a player is starting to come through as a coach.

Results were never going to be easy with either Italy or Japan. But there was a general consensus that the Japanese approach at last year's World Cup was both innovative and exciting.

Kirwan tried to build a game that suited the physical limitations of his Japanese players. It was based around speed of foot and moving the ball quickly.

Of course, against bigger opponents, that was always going to have problems, especially in the amount of ball supply the Cherry Blossoms had to work with.

And while the results didn't come and that ultimately cost him his job, Kirwan's style was one of the most exciting at a tournament where the approach of many teams was stymied by the pressures of the occasion. Japan's opening match against France was one of the tournament's best.

Throughout his struggles with Japan, Kirwan remained hugely positive and was always looking to better his adopted region's place in the international scene. He had a vision of them joining Super Rugby that may still find its place if Sanzar can broaden their rather blinkered thinking. He appreciated the riches that Asia offered as a new territory for rugby to explore and the IRB's decision to award Japan the 2019 World Cup was proof of Kirwan's logic.

He will operate under new pressures with the Blues and a two-year contract will offer him little leeway. He needs to get the Blues winning again quickly.

It's a tough assignment. His core of All Blacks are largely getting long in the tooth and there has been questionable development within the region - a handicap he will inherit from both the coaching team he replaces and also from the boardroom bosses who have now hired him. He needs to find some new talent as well as polishing the dusty lot he inherits

But it's pleasing to see a genuine great get this chance. Super Rugby coaching opportunities are few and far between. The plumb jobs have tended to be mortgaged by a select group.

Kirwan now needs to try and entrench himself at Eden Park. If he's serious about one day getting a crack at the All Blacks he knows his time with the Blues will define that.

As an All Blacks legend Kirwan commands respect. He will get that from his players and his challenge is for his team to earn that respect back from their fans and sponsors but also from their opponents.

Three titles - the first two in the opening two years of Super 12 and the third in 2003 - don't do the Blues justice and that's why there was a need for change.

Pat Lam's first three years in charge gave promise of turning things around before falling away abysmally this season. Lam's bosses were left with no option but to look elsewhere.

There have been mumblings of disappointment that a heavyweight international alternative didn't emerge and put up his hand.

But that does Kirwan a disservice. He is truly international but he hasn't been allowed a truly heavyweight opportunity.

The Blues present him with that and the region should embrace the fact that they now have one of their favoured sons in charge.

Fairfax Media