Michele Hewitson Interview: John Kirwan

By Michele Hewitson

The Blues coach enjoys his 'gloriously imbalanced' way of looking normal but being different

Sir John Kirwan says he doesn't want to become boring about depression but feels an obligation to help others suffering. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sir John Kirwan says he doesn't want to become boring about depression but feels an obligation to help others suffering. Photo / Greg Bowker

"I've been loopy. I'm not frightened of being loopy." If there wasn't a ruddy great picture of Sir John Kirwan, the Blues coach, former and famous rugby great, and former and famous loop, alongside that quote you might well have guessed who was talking as soon as you read it.

You'd think, or I would, that it was a funny thing to be as famous for having been depressed as it was to be famous for playing a game. But he's had so long to be used to both of these things that he either doesn't think much about being recognised, or he sees it as part of his job because, really oddly, having been famously depressed has become a sort of job.

But he still hates having his ruddy great picture taken. Would he have it taken on the beach? "No." He did, in the end. He wasn't really being grumpy. He was teasing. But also: "I hate this. I still find it embarrassing. You'd think I'd be used to it." You would. He was looking utterly miserable, but then he perked up. "I love this shirt!" he said. It was a nice shirt, but it looked to be a perfectly normal shirt. It has one red button, right at the bottom; the other buttons are grey.

What he likes about this is that the shirt looks perfectly normal but there, right at the bottom, is a little, slightly eccentric surprise. It's "normal but different". He is very serious and earnest and he can also be playful and a bit daft. He likes to mix things up; to be normal but different. If he were a shirt, he'd have one red button.

He said: "I'm gloriously imbalanced." He said this joyously. He is almost infectiously happy about having been loopy.

But why are we talking about this? He has been off anti-depressants and hasn't seen any sort of shrink for a decade or so. (He thinks; he says he's useless at dates and remembering what happened and when, as I would later find out.) I was fairly determined not to talk to him about his depression because it was a long time ago. And - I was hoping not to have to put this to him - I sometimes think: Okay, we know you were depressed. Now, can we talk about something else? I also thought he might be sick of talking about it.

The short answer is: No. Five minutes after we sat down he said, about the Blues' loss to the Bulls last week: "I'm at peace ... depression taught me that." And I meanly thought: Oh, no. He's going to bang on, boringly, about depression for the entire interview. He didn't, although it is always there - and, truly, although I don't quite know how he does it, he isn't boring about depression at all. He can be a bit overly earnest, that's true, but he's rather sweet when he's being earnest. Perhaps that's his charm, which can be droll.

Still, I did wonder if he ever worries that other people will get sick of him talking about his depression. "Yeah, and I think that's the fine line. And that's why I need to be careful about where we continue to take it because I still want to help."

But why does he? Surely he's done his bit. "Because I can. But I also think that when I was there it was hell, and seriously, if I can make it easier for one person ..."

He has said he now thinks having depression was the best thing that ever happened to him. This seems a strange thing to say. Perhaps it has made him nicer. There was an idea about him, that when he was younger and a star All Black, that he was sometimes sulky. "Yeah, probably. I was very, very focused on achieving what I wanted to achieved. So when that didn't happen I was, probably, yeah."

He thinks his depression made him a better person. He doesn't know if it was sometimes awful; he says other people would have to answer that.

I think he thinks he was lucky - he was a socially acceptable depressed person; not some shunned loony, after all, and he's well now. So he owes it to himself to help other people. Also, he has always worked hard at whatever he does. He worked hard at being a butcher's boy in his dad's butcher's shop. Helping is work; and part of what he calls "working at wellness".

But he doesn't want to become a depression bore, does he? "No. Totally. I always say I don't want to become the Beaurepaires of mental health. You know: 'I'm Vince Martin ..."'

He has had a fairly loony idea for team-building at the Blues. He bought a Fiat Bambina car, which is very small, and the player who is voted to have made the blooper of the week has to drive around in the car for a week. The players are very big. This is supposed to be, I think, a motivational tool.

My question was: What the hell's the story with this silly car?

His answer was a typically Kirwan one, which is to say that it was windy. It began with a Maori proverb he is fond of which is, in English: "If you want to have faith in the future, you must first stand on the shoulders of the past." "So when I got this job, that's what I did. I stood on the shoulders of the past and I looked back at what made this region successful and then I tried to modernise it and implement it.

"So, if team spirit in the past was sitting around after a game having a few beers and playing the guitar ... What is that in the modern game? Because we have so many cultures, so many backgrounds, so many ways to have a good time. So, what would you do after a day at work?"

I wouldn't drive around in a silly little car. "What would you do?" Oh, go gardening, probably. Or drink gin. "Well, we can't do that. We're professional sports people. So if you were going to modernise what you were doing, how would you do it? Maybe if you couldn't drink any more. Maybe if you don't have time to do your gardening. Maybe it's an indoor bonsai tree."

An indoor bonsai tree! I thought I'd asked about the car. Aah, but you see, the car is "about creating an environment that is fun", just like an indoor bonsai tree. Do try to keep up. I did, and failed.

He had said earlier: "As you will probably understand when you've finished talking to me, I don't always say things that really make sense a lot of the time."

He also doesn't remember what happened yesterday. Which must be why he sent me a very sweet email thanking me for lunch (and for a recipe I'd mentioned and he wanted - he's a keen cook) which also said: "The lamb's fry was awesome." He had chicken livers.

I tried to call him Sir John but it just doesn't stick. He is, of course, very proud of his knighthood but he looked at me as though I was the nutty one when I suggested he enjoys it. It's not the sort of thing you enjoy, he said. Perhaps that would be showing off. So everyone calls him JK. I wondered what he called Sir Graham Henry, who is now his technical adviser and so, theoretically, Sir John is Sir Graham's boss.

I did say theoretically. He says he is not that sort of boss and doesn't even think of it that way. Anyway, he said he calls Henry "senior knight", and Henry calls him "many things!".

Really, they call each other Ted and JK, of course.

He didn't sleep, not a wink, after last week's loss. He never does after a loss. "As a player I felt physically sick when we lost and I still feel physically sick." He was awake all night, tossing and turning, watching the game, going over it obsessively. He was upset and angry. "All of the above." What a rotten sort of job he has. "Don't you care about your job?" I don't stay up all night! "Have you lost some passion?" I learned to go to sleep. "There you go! I need to do some learning."

I should never have started answering his questions. I was just encouraging him, not that he needed encouraging. He asked me almost as many questions as I asked him. This might have been a technique he's developed over the years as a way of controlling interviews, but I don't think he's that tricky. He just likes asking questions.

He didn't read a book until he was 18 - he says he wasted his education at De La Salle College in Mangere East and left school at 15 - and now he reads "anything and everything". He's reading an autobiography of Eric Clapton and a book about the brain and "winning as a mentality - what it looks like, how you can train it".

He is interested in anything and everything, then, and unfortunately for somebody trying to interview him, that includes his interviewer.

If I'd answered all his questions, there would have been no time to ask him any of mine. After a dozen or so of his questions, in an attempt to stop him asking any more, I stopped giving serious answers. He said: "Are you always this flippant when people ask you personal questions?" This particular personal question had been: "What takes you from five gins to seven?" What? Seven! Or, five, even! I'd been joking about the five. So, yes, I was always this flippant.

He looked a bit put out and said: "But you can ask me?" Well, yes, again. It was, or so I idiotically thought, my job to ask him questions - not to answer his questions. "But how can I understand where you're taking the questions if you won't open up?" This is the sort of thing that can take you from five gins to seven, honestly.

I said, perhaps in a rather shouty way: "You're not interviewing me!" He looked really quite amazed at this."So we're not sharing this interview?" No. "Should I now close up?"

Was he pulling my leg? He must have been joking about the closing up. He is about as capable of that as he is at remembering what he had for lunch yesterday.

Never mind. Lunch with JK was awesome. I'd like to interview him one day.

- NZ Herald

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