Chris Rattue 's Opinion

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Kirwan failing to carve new era at Blues

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Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan. Photo / Getty Images
Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan. Photo / Getty Images

It's "What's wrong with the Blues?" time again. Two seasons under John Kirwan and nothing much has changed. Different animals, same zoo.

Kirwan has shown little sign of any special coaching knack, and the strange comings and goings - led by the Benji Marshall saga - reveal a lack of clever recruitment strategies.

The Kirwan era began with a presidential-style speech at a Super 15 gathering. He pointed out five famous Blues/Auckland old boys - none renowned coaches or selectors - in the crowd, and thanked them for their contributions to his planning work. He set a record for cramming the word love into sporting oratory. It was famous All Black meets boy-next-door meets Len Brown.

"Fasten your seat belts," he proclaimed.

Which was good advice considering his first captaincy appointment. Jaws dropped, even within the organisation if rumour is right, when he announced All Black lock Ali Williams would lead the side in 2013.

People in and around rugby will happily tell you that Williams is the most difficult player they have dealt with. Williams has a maverick personality. Each to their own, but he's not exactly cohesion-inducing captaincy material.

From what I can gather, leadership didn't change Williams. His team speeches could be wild affairs before players turned to the likes of Luke Braid - the man who should have got the job - for precise instructions.

Braid is a universally respected, lion-hearted footballer who has not been favoured by the All Black selectors. Assured of the Blues No 7 jersey, he was everything they needed as a captain, one who could symbolise a new era of team ethos. How Kirwan failed to spot this should be a mystery.

But Kirwan's coaching history does tend to reveal a penchant for a grand statement.

Just as importantly, he came from a playing era where veteran or great All Blacks routinely distrusted or even dissed anyone who wasn't part of this exclusive club. Keven Mealamu didn't want the captaincy job, and for all of his quirks, Williams had 70-plus tests under the belt.

In some ways, Williams was also a throwback to the amazing era Kirwan graced as among the finest wings rugby has seen.

The mighty Auckland team that emerged in the late 1980s was built on big personalities, not all particularly popular. Rugged individualism was a key ingredient and probably a reason why - unlike what has occurred in Canterbury - those famous players did not morph into important guiding lights for future teams.

Sean Fitzpatrick - a warm character at odds with his on-field persona - dabbled in team management, while making it clear coaching would never be for him.

With the fastidious Grant Fox one exception, the rest mainly scattered to get on with their lives away from coaching or selecting.

Another exception is Kirwan, who after a season assisting Frank Oliver at the Blues, cut his teeth with the Italian and Japanese national teams. In other words, he was not schooled bottom-up through the New Zealand coaching system.

He arrived with fanfare, memories of his wondrous deeds as a player enhanced by his work in the field of depression, and then a knighthood.

He has done a helpful job for the All Blacks, promoting the type of players who add punch to the test team, and his explosive-laden side wins when it fires.

But, but, but. While Braid was finally given the captaincy and Sir Graham Henry put more time into his technical advisory role in 2014, little has changed.

Maybe the die was cast in 2013. Maybe Kirwan does not have the coaching chops.

The Blues can't get their act together, week to week, with Kirwan's confusing first five-eighths choices a damning statement against his record.

As an experienced Massey rugby researcher opined this year, the Blues appear to lack the genuine soul associated with the champion Crusaders and Chiefs teams.

Kirwan comes across as a man who protects his image vigorously, and for now there is enough goodwill to see him through.

The pressure is truly on this time. Public perception can only be manipulated so far.

The appointment of two new assistants - replacing Henry and Mick Byrne - will be vital.

- NZ Herald

Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Read more by Chris Rattue

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