Can John Kirwan turn around the Blues?
In the end, the Blues needed bloodshed.
To win back their alienated, disillusioned northern support-base, they decided heads had to roll.
After this year's frustrating four-win 12-loss campaign, incumbent Pat Lam and his axed coaching team carried the accountability. They are the scapegoats. Their total cleanout represents change. Whether that is enough remains to be seen.
Lam, who was not offered a lesser role, made it clear he had “protected” his bosses.
John Kirwan, one of Auckland rugby's favourite sons and a former All Black colleague of Blues powerbrokers Andy Dalton and Gary Whetton, now takes up the challenging Blues mantle after being granted a clean slate yesterday.
“I haven't been this excited since I was in the [Auckland] team back in the '80s,” the exuberant Kirwan said at Eden Park, where he helped win the 1987 World Cup.
Immediate respect is the iconic former All Black's commanding asset. He returns home to fulfil "a dream" after forging an international coaching career with Italy and Japan. His chance comes at the right time with the team only able to head one way after finishing 12th this season.
Blues chairman Whetton dismissed concerns that Kirwan had limited coaching experience in the New Zealand rugby scene, given the 67-test wing was last involved with the Blues 11 years ago.
“It was an issue but not a major one,” Whetton said.
The five-man selection panel, which included World-Cup winning coach Graham Henry, felt Kirwan was the best of the three candidates - former Taranaki and Canada coach Kieran Crowley was the other - to restore faith and deliver results. That is no small task.
“John had done his homework. He is fresh blood. He came with new ideas, new thoughts about selection. He's had success in the region as a player and overseas as a coach,” Whetton said.
Kirwan's two-year tenure started with promises of progress in the next 18 months and faith in local talent from New Zealand's largest catchment. But there was a realisation that major issues remained with development structures and recruitment at the troubled franchise.
“I'm not sitting here saying I've got all the answers, but if you've got an open mind and are prepared for change then that's hopefully what you will see,” Kirwan said.
“I'm going to get all the help I can. I've been out of the Super 15 scene since 2002. There's plenty of people in the region that know the tournament. I'll make sure that planning is done properly.”
John Hart could be one of those key contributors to the Blues' future. The former All Blacks coach will remain a close source of advice for Kirwan. “John has been a friend and a mentor since I was 18. He will continue to be that,” Kirwan said.
In accepting the head coach role, Kirwan revealed his brief would be the attack, but he was reluctant to reveal who his forwards coach would be.
It's understood Kirwan will be one of three-full time coaches, with former All Blacks skills coach Mick Byrne one of the others.
“Some of my strengths are big-vision projects,” he said. “At this stage [I'll] need a forwards, skills and backs [coach].”
Player recruitment will be Kirwan's next focus.
He will need to act swiftly to fill the gaps, with at least six players moving overseas, and decide whether All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Piri Weepu are part of his plans.
“I've got to stamp my personality on the team.
"We've got a set of players under contract. I'll be looking at those in the next couple of days. I need to pick the type of players that can win at the next level. You will see some change.”
- © Fairfax NZ News
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