Three years after dropping out of college, John Kirwan's life changed.
Before Kirwan became one of the great All Black wings, received a knighthood for his work with depression, coached Italy and Japan and secured the role as new Blues mentor, he left De La Salle College as a raw 15-year-old to be an apprentice butcher in South Auckland, where he experienced a unique upbringing among the Pakeha minority.
“I left school at an early age and went butchering with my dad,” Kirwan recalls.
Carving meat was a career path, but cutting capers on the rugby field was his calling. Kirwan made the Auckland team and founded a lasting love for scoring tries in the blue and white hoops.
“At 18 I got selected for Auckland and my life changed,” he said.
Thirty years on, Kirwan's passion has gone full circle as he moves home with Italian wife Fiorella, two sons Niko, 17, named after Michael Jones, Luca, 13, and daughter Francesca, 18, a volleyball prospect.
In Kirwan's glory years - the old school amateur era when rucking was encouraged - rugby wasn't always fun. Pride, rather than money, was the sole motivator. There was no time for pre-match hair gel. No room for showboating or outlandish dougie-style try-scoring celebrations. Respect for team leaders, those who had been before you, and the back-seat-of-the-bus policy, was unquestioned, or else you copped a solid thumping. Kirwan quickly understood his place.
“There were a certain set of rules that were controlled by the elders, the essence of how we had to be and act,” he said. “It was amateur, but very professional in attitude. For me there was a lot of influence and guiding light.”
It would be remiss of Kirwan to state this crucial element had been lost on the current crop of Blues players as he is yet to get his feet under the desk. But it's that sort of mentality he intends to instil over the next two years.
“There will be two or three things that need to change. [When I played] there was a raw want and dedication to be the best. It was a very hard edge. People often say to me: ‘Was it fun to be in the All Blacks?' The answer is yes and no. Most days it was really hard, challenging. You couldn't get away with much.
"It was character-forming.”
That same honesty, determined work ethic and integrity are core principles that won't be compromised under Kirwan, who steps up to the biggest task of his coaching career.
“There will be some core values that are important to me as a man, that I am keen to impart. A lot of those are set in concrete. They are non-negotiable.”
The Blues present Kirwan with a chance to prove the sceptics wrong. The 47-year-old's appointment hasn't been greeted with universal support.
Already, the knockers, such as 1987 World Cup-winning team-mate Wayne Shelford, suggest Kirwan's decade-long stint abroad was too long, that he lacks local knowledge and hasn't had to confront the suffocating expectations and pressures that New Zealand rugby demands.
“I'm at a traffic light,” Kirwan admits. “Rightly so people have already started judging, looking for the defects to say: ‘I told you so'. That's how it should be.”
But you get the sense Kirwan has faced greater demons. He is open about his fear of failure, and believes acknowledging weakness is a sign of strength.
“My fear of losing is an incredible motivator for me. Of course, I'm scared of not being successful, but I wouldn't be doing this job if I wasn't.”
Weaknesses at the Blues were well exposed this year, but if JK executes his plan to regain “rispetto” - positive results should follow.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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