Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Honeymoon is over - now for playoffs - Kirwan

Blues leader says he has high expectations for the side next year.

Sir John Kirwan's relentless positivity has improved the Blues' attitude. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sir John Kirwan's relentless positivity has improved the Blues' attitude. Photo / Dean Purcell

This time of year is the best for all Super Rugby coaches apart from those fortunate few who won the final in early August. It is a time of optimism, of working hard in the summer sun with no prospect of defeat to sour the mood.

For John Kirwan, it's nearly time to put the lessons learned during his first season with the Blues to good use. He made an impact this year when building on the ruins of Pat Lam's reign but his team's excellent start to the campaign when they won away against the Hurricanes and put five tries past the Crusaders in a spectacular victory at Eden Park could not be sustained.

He arrived at a franchise low on self-belief, one which hadn't won a title since 2003, and he clung to his dream of finishing in the top six only to see it dashed with a hard-fought defeat at home in their final match against eventual champions the Chiefs.

While Kirwan improved the atmosphere of the place with his relentless positivity, next year he won't settle for anything less than a playoff spot.

This year the Blues finished 10th. With the likes of Benji Marshall, Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Jerome Kaino on the roster this time, the expectations will be much higher. As Kirwan said at his team's launch at Eden Park at the end of October, the honeymoon period is over.

"There will be more expectation but I don't worry too much because I always have that on myself," he says. "For me it's important that we deliver and continue to deliver. Expectation to me is pretty normal. I'm looking forward to it, I'm excited."

That positivity was evident yesterday as he watched his players train at their Unitec base in Mt Albert.

Kirwan, who came to the job this time last year after a stint coaching the Japanese national team, has travelled his own learning curve. His bewilderment at the intricacies of the New Zealand Rugby Union's franchise signing protocols was well documented but this time around he has a much better handle on things.

"The difference for me personally, just understanding what I need to do, is unbelievable," he says. "I always knew I'd be behind the eight ball last year and I was and now it's important that we learn from those lessons and make sure we keep getting better.

"I'm never satisfied, that's part of my personality. I think emotionally we made huge strides. People walked away from Eden Park feeling proud but I cannot accept coming 10th. We were one game away from being in the top six; you lose that game and you're 10th, that's unacceptable to me. But I think emotionally we're heading in the right direction. Guys are playing for each other, total commitment, that type of stuff."

To that end, Kirwan says he can take lessons from both the Chiefs and the Crusaders. The former because of their consistency and the latter because they are so hard to beat at home.

"The Chiefs have certainly taught us a lesson haven't they, how they have had lots of injuries but the other guys just keep stepping up. One of the things I learned from a selection point of view is that I've got to have 37 guys that can play. That's what we need to be able to do this season. If we need to be able to rest someone, the next guy jumps in there."

He talks of the need to carry on that emotional attachment between his players and supporters at Eden Park. "One of the biggest gains for us was the emotional gain ... I think if you want to succeed in this tournament you have to build a fortress; the Crusaders have got one, the Chiefs are certainly creating one, it's just part of what we need to be able to do.

"I think last year we got that ... we lost to the Chiefs but people still walked away incredibly proud because we never gave up."

- NZ Herald

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