Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Future of the Blues may lie in the past

Coach John Kirwan is aiming to return his franchise to their glory days so he has analysed what went down previously, what worked and what didn't.

The players have heard John Kirwan's bark and some even his bite. Photo / Greg Bowker
The players have heard John Kirwan's bark and some even his bite. Photo / Greg Bowker

John Kirwan works the room intensely. It is a balancing act for the Blues coach as he searches for the player interaction that is necessary to develop the franchise.

He wants to coax his men and they want to deliver for the former All Black great. But there is an edge to their responses.

Many are shy characters, the bulk of them are new to this level of rugby and Kirwan is a name writ large in Auckland rugby folklore.

But there is a missionary-type zeal around Blues HQ these days as everyone hunts for the keys to reactivate the sort of thrust the Blues had in the foundation years of Super rugby.

Before and after he was appointed coach, Kirwan searched for ideas about the regeneration. He met with many constituents, rugby people with theories about boosting the Blues.

"There is an old Maori saying that if you want to have faith and confidence in the future, you must first stand on the shoulders of the past," Kirwan said.

So the coach went backwards to redevelop the class of 2013. He analysed what teams and administrators did previously, what worked and what didn't.

He assembled a powerful coaching group to mould a raw but exciting new group of players. He, Mick Byrne, Grant Doorey and Graham Henry brought reams of coaching experience to impart to a new group.

The trick would be to get on the same wavelength.

Kirwan enlisted a posse of former players - Joe Stanley, Wayne Shelford, Michael Jones, Justin Collins, Craig Innes and Eric Rush - to pick their brains. Whenever they can, they visit the side to offer ideas or answer questions from the current squad.

In a similar fashion, former Blues chief executive Peter Scutts works on projects to further unify the group and encourage their collective venom. He arranged for the big screen at the side's Mt Albert practice ground so Kirwan and other staff could halt training and revisit what they had just seen.

As Kirwan sifted through his years playing rugby, he wondered if playing the guitar and drinking beer were strong components of team culture then, what were the modern equivalents?

"It is about being with your mates and loving the team," the passionate coach said.

Since his permanent return from Europe, Kirwan has been upset at the lack of civic pride in Auckland and interest in the Blues.

When he played for Auckland he knew what the side stood for; he knew what they meant to the region and they all knew how they wanted to play. They were a high-tempo, high-impact, highly skilled group and in essence, Kirwan and his coaching cronies want to rekindle that flair and potent energy.

"That is how we have to play otherwise we get bored. That identifies our city and our region," he says.

Kirwan encourages the diversity of cultures and personalities in his group but makes it clear they have to unite in one rugby style to be successful.

In his playing days, Kirwan was a flamboyant character - a powerful, skilled wing who made things happen. He's in that sort of mood with the Blues. He runs sessions with a decent bark, he challenges his men.

Selections have been made, now he and his coaching team are working on chivvying the best results they can from those men. Kirwan and his crew have embraced diversity. That is a reflection of Auckland, he says.

The city was about the flamboyance of Audis and the grunt of old Fords. It had business suits and cross-dressers. The Blues would reflect that sort of mixture. He had enlisted Henry because he was past and present, he was world-class, he loved the Blues, he had knowledge, history, passion, pedigree and influence.

When the Blues won during Henry's original stint in the mid-90s, they played simple but effective rugby. These days rugby seems far more regimented, so how does Kirwan cope with that development?

"My job is to make them better players so I have a system of coaching to make them better each day. From a coaching point of view I need to supply something that makes that happen. Then I want to give them the responsibility of the game because they are the ones asked to deliver it.

"I call it Lego. I give them all the pieces but they have to put it together. Think of a box on the floor and only a kid knows where he is going to put all the pieces," he says. "If I can give them all the pieces - individually, collectively, tactically, technically - then they have all the tools to perform."

Ideally he would like strong results this season and certainly ones to keep the critics at more than arm's length. If the Blues delivered the sort of progress the Hurricanes had that would be just fine. Kirwan wants to see the Blues play for each other and never give up.

"Players will have to show passion and commitment every day. That is not negotiable," he says. "There may be big wins or soft losses and people will be able to see what is going on. Ideally, I think you need two years to implement and see good results and five years to create a legacy.

"We need to get back to the levels where we make the playoffs every season for the next 20 years to get that legacy back."

So far the season has worked out. Injuries have been minimal and everyone is learning fast.

"But we need to work hard all the time and be solid. When the shit hits the fan everyone needs to be going in the same direction so there are no cracks and it is just a shit day and we get on with it."

After the staff and squad choices, Kirwan had to settle on a captain.

There were limited options. He could have stayed with Keven Mealamu but he was on a sabbatical. There were the rising leadership skills of Luke Braid or the mavericks Ali Williams or Piri Weepu to do the business. Williams got the nod and accepted.

He was ready, Kirwan reasons. He was a typical Aucklander and this challenge was the best way to get the best out of him in his latter years. His career had stalled because of injury.

Captaincy was the catalyst for him to get excited again about his rugby.

"It is great to see he is heading in that direction again after 12 years of top rugby. He has a new focus and new learning. We needed a change and I want Kevvie to be the spiritual leader and to be our franchise's greatest contributor and to be able to retire when he wants to.

"His best role will be looking after the young men at this franchise and concentrating on getting himself to the next World Cup."

Wasn't Kirwan concerned that Williams would be a boom-or-bust leader?

"No, I think he will be Ali and I believe that will be positive. I would not have made the choice if I thought there was going to be an issue. I think he is a good fit. It is what he needs and he is taking it in and knows he has growing and changing to do."

Same with Kirwan. The 48-year-old has coached Italy and Japan but the Blues is an intensive long haul project.

He has not bashed himself around about the mission. He knows gradual consistent improvement is the key rather than pyrotechnic parabolas of form and failure.

"I am getting better as a coach and I have buddies who challenge me and I enjoy that. I like feeling out of sorts and knowing I have to improve. Coaching is not about nailing it, it is an ongoing practice.

"I had some fear I might not be able to deliver what I wanted straight away but that feeling has disappeared after understanding what we are doing and how to deal with a range of issues."

Kirwan has enlisted a range of backroom staff and rejigged team roles so he can get on with his primary coaching role.

He, the staff and the team settled on a playing style which suited their nature and needs.

"I gave the players our vision and told them to take it away and come back with their thoughts. When they came back we implemented it. There was some tweaking but we agreed quickly with the leadership group on our game plan."

Kirwan loves ideas and concepts. He is open to suggestions BUT he is also the boss. The players know his bark and a little of his bite.

"You need to manage people and my goal is to make players achieve what they want. So the Blues is about creating an environment where that happens. That is my role," Kirwan says.

"As a head coach it is understanding the game and letting those around me help implement that. I have to make sure they stay on task and in that process get the outcome.

"From an operation point of view I run a fairly large group and have to make sure everything is ticking over properly."

His staff have the freedom to perform their work because Kirwan rates them all at the top of their profession.

Communication is encouraged and game plans for the Hurricanes, Crusaders and Bulls have been devised. Now we will watch with as much intrigue as Kirwan and co to see how those plans stack up in practice.


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