Rhythm & Blues

John Kirwan has fought hard, won big and lost openly. His career on the rugby field is unparalleled. His leadership on the sideline is controversial. His honesty in addressing mental health and wellbeing issues is bravery personified. Scaling heights and weathering storms? It’s all in a lifetime for JK.

It could be likened to being best-man at your ex-girlfriend’s wedding and having to stand up in front of all your family and friends to toast the happy couple.

Yet Sir John Kirwan wouldn’t have it any other way.  

Weekend after weekend, Kirwan fronts up on Sky Sport, analysing Super Rugby and the Blues. Based on this decade’s form, the less generous would say that this would be hard for any Aucklander. But having been so publicly flogged and then dropped as Blues coach, surely, he would rather be anywhere else? Not a chance. 

“I love the game. I still love the Blues. The game has given me everything, so how can you turn your back on a game that has given you everything and not still love it?” he asks. 

Kirwan may still love the game and the team, but scars remain from that 2015 bloodletting. “I never say never, but I’m not planning on coaching again,”  he says. 

It’s a fairly big impact when you consider that Kirwan’s coaching career spanned 16-years and included international posts with Italy and Japan. 

Kirwan makes no attempt to hide from the dismal showing of the side under his coaching; in three seasons they won just 35 percent of their matches. 

“I worked all my life to get my dream job and I failed. It was horrible, I wasn’t sleeping. I’d made a lot of mistakes, but it was a five-year turnaround not a three-year turnaround.”  

He admits that was the biggest mistake; a case of his ego winning over his better sense. You could forgive Kirwan for feeling that if anyone could turn around the underperforming team in three years, it would be him.  

Awarded an MBE for services to rugby, his record of 199 first class tries remains a New Zealand record. In ten years on the wing for the All Blacks, he scored 35 test tries. Then, aged 30, he was signed-up as part of the first ever Warriors team in 1995. In his second (and final) year of league, he was the Warriors’ top try scorer.  

But on-the-field statistics never tell the whole story; neither as a player or a coach. “I was a butcher from Onehunga, brought up in Mangere.  

I left school when I was 15, I think it’s a bloody miracle to be honest. But my father always said to me, ‘When you see an opportunity in your life, that door is open, and you must go through it. If you don’t go through it, that door is going to slam in your face and break your nose.’” The result of following that advice has been a few bloody noses… as well as a Knighthood. “I’ve always taken the opportunities that have been presented, and that hasn’t always been easy. I’ve been scared at times; totally out of my depth. But all those challenges have helped me grow,” he says. 

On the field, Kirwan’s 1.91m frame and blistering turn of speed made him seem invincible. The truth was anything but. Later in his career, he went public about the depression that had at times paralysed him.  

“One of my biggest fears when I did do the advertising campaigns, was that I felt that I would possibly ruin my reputation and career. But the opposite happened, and it has been an incredible journey.” 

Raised in the archetypical rugby environment where the only way is to ‘suck it up and show no weakness’, Kirwan had good reason to be anxious. 

“I was scared that people weren’t ready to talk about it. I thought there would be a lot of stigma attached to it. For me, it was so horrible and so scary, that my decision was that if I helped just one person cope with what I went through, then it was worth it.” 

He became Sir JK in 2012, knighted for his services to both rugby and mental health.  

It’s a long way from the teenager who famously went from playing third grade for his Marist club to Auckland and on to the All Blacks inside a year. At 19 years and 183 days, he is the fourth youngest  All Black to debut ever.  

There is a pause, then a hearty chuckle when I ask what the JK  of 1983 would have thought had he been told what life had in store?  

“I was only worried about winning the hundred jug haul at Marist in those days. I’d have had you locked up if you said I would do what I’d done!” 

Most unlikely would have been the suggestion that in 2018, his favourite spectator sport would not be rugby, but football.  

His love for the beautiful game can be put down to Kirwan’s favourite Italian saying ‘Non sputare nel piatto dove mangiato’ (“Do not spit in the plate you’re eating off”). For him that meant embracing everything about Italian culture when he started playing for Treviso in 1985. 

“It was about respecting culture and learning the language,” he says. 

Treviso was also where he met his wife Fiorella. Today the couple’s three children all share his love of sport, but not of rugby. His daughter Francesca is a beach volleyballer, youngest son Luca a rower and Niko a professional footballer with Italian club AC Mestre and on the verge of taking the field as an All White. 

“Niko has never had a rugby ball in his hand; but he’s always had a soccer ball at his feet. So, I decided to fall in love with his game, and I love football now. I watch it every week.” 

Kirwan still splits his time between Italy and Auckland.  

But despite his complete love for Italian culture, food and wine, Auckland remains home.  He is unapologetically passionate about the city, and criticising Auckland will earn a swift rebuke. 

“If you don’t like it go back to where you came from. I love my city, even in traffic jams! It’s a chance to chat to friends and listen to music. I’m 40 minutes away from one of the best surf beaches in the world. Auckland is one of the greatest cities in the world.” 

It’s not just the gridlock. With the help of time, Kirwan can even see the upside of his Blues failure. 

“The Blues was one of the best things to happen to me; it just didn’t work out. It was a testing time for me, my mental health and my career. After that experience, I took some time off to realise what would I do.” 

At 53, Kirwan is busier than ever. Along with being a Sky Sport rugby pundit, he is the Giltrap Group’s Health and Wellness Ambassador and remains at the forefront of the mental health and depression awareness campaigns, with a focus on putting an end to youth suicide.  

His message is honest and personal; “I’m still just a butcher from Mangere, and I keep looking for those open doors. Don’t be scared to ask for help and don’t be scared of making mistakes.” 

We all face challenges to our mental health. For confidential advice and support, phone Lifeline 0800 543 354, or Depression Helpline 0800 111 757. 

Words by Shaun Summerfiled

Images by Vinesh Kumaran/Photosport

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