Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Good guy disguises average record

John Kirwan has a 40 per cent win record with the Blues. Photo / Getty Images
John Kirwan has a 40 per cent win record with the Blues. Photo / Getty Images

There is Sir John Kirwan, relentless campaigner and champion of mental health. There is John Kirwan, brilliant All Black, inspired and inspiring. There is John Kirwan, the compelling orator and all-round good guy. And then there is John Kirwan, the coach.

Do three parts conspire to prevent proper evaluation of the fourth? Is Kirwan the coach struggling to be the same calibre as Kirwan the man?

Making the distinction is hard - much of Kirwan the coach comes from Kirwan the man; his aura is a big part of his coaching offering. His credibility at the Blues derives not so much from his coaching with Japan and Italy but from memories of him flying down the wing for the All Blacks.

The respect he commands is more to do with his bravery and honesty in dealing with depression and his selflessness in helping others than his tactical acumen and flawless game plans.

How would Kirwan's tenure at the Blues look if the other parts of him did not cast a protective shadow? What if he wasn't so amenable and likeable?

The Blues have won only 10 times in his 25-game tenure and that should have his neck close to the metaphoric chopping block.

The Blues' win on Anzac Day had passion at its core - but more significant was the Waratahs' incompetence and it was hard to get a sense of how the Blues are putting their game together. Are they a pass-and-run side or kick-and-chase? It's still not obvious. Any sense of optimism stems from the fact they have enough highly-skilled, motivated individuals to be dangerous rather than any tactical threat they pose as a collective.

The impression is easily drawn that Kirwan is a big picture rather than a details coach. That was the problem with the Benji Marshall experiment: the vision was enticing - Marshall dancing this way and that Marshall the new Carlos Spencer. But that vision needed detail - basics such as in what position he might play. The due diligence was questionable and that has been the story of the Kirwan tenure - everyone can see where he wants to take them but there is sliding conviction about how he intends to do it.

Critical analysis of Kirwan's coaching reign shouldn't be read as condemnation of his ability. Perhaps he'll get there and turn them into the team he and everyone else knows they could be.

But at this mid-point of his second campaign, there is a pressing need for perspective.

There was the exhilarating start to last year - the brave and flamboyant victories against the Hurricanes and Crusaders that fostered belief the Blues had found a coach with the tactical and motivational gifts to herald a new era. Talk about a false dawn.

There has been no new beginning. The story has been much the same under Kirwan as it was under his predecessor Pat Lam.

In fact, it has been worse. On a straight comparison, Lam comes out better. He signed off with a 45 per cent win ratio across four seasons while Kirwan sits on 40 per cent. Kirwan's numbers suffer from an appalling away record with just one road win on his watch.

That statistic alone should be a career-killer; a red flag to the franchise. But the executives have been impressed, like the rest of us, by the other sides of Kirwan and in March the Blues extended his contract for another year.

"We made that decision in the off-season," says Blues chief executive Michael Redman. "We had seen enough from John in terms of his man management, his vision, passion and the structures and culture to be sure that it all fits in with our vision.

"This franchise has had a relatively high turnover of coaches in the last seven or eight years, good coaches who have not been able to deliver the right results, so we believe there are deeper lying structural and cultural issues that have to be solved. We wanted to give John the stability and support he needs to implement his ideas."

Patience has often been the secret of New Zealand coaching success. Coaches here are not held hostage by results as they are in France and other European nations.

But there is a balance to be struck. A coach can't be backed indefinitely on a cultural revolution ticket alone: Results are not an abstract part of the business and there is no value in behind the scenes work without improved performance.

Executives feel the need to evaluate a coach holistically, but paying fans focus on match day. A growing number wonder if Kirwan is repeating mistakes that got his predecessor sacked.

Lam began the 2012 season without a first-choice first-five. He chopped and changed - indecision eroding confidence and blocking momentum. Then he promoted the talented but inexperienced Gareth Anscombe only to drop him the first time the youngster had a mixed game. Anscombe needed patience and support to learn from his mistakes.

This year has been eerily similar. Chris Noakes, Marshall and Baden Kerr were the options at No 10, yet it was wider training squad member Simon Hickey who, like Anscombe, stormed into contention. Like Anscombe, Hickey was dropped after a poor game and left wondering if he was being blamed for a poor team performance.

Tactically, there has been a lack of sophistication. Last week in Wellington, Julian Savea chipped-and-chased in the wet and it flummoxed the Blues. The week before, they were kicked off the park in Canberra. That the Brumbies played as they did couldn't really have been a surprise and yet the Blues had no orchestrated response.

Little things make the difference at this level and if the attention to detail isn't there, it will manifest somewhere.

In the case of the Blues, it is with their defence: they are the second worst team behind the Cheetahs, leaking an average of 27.8 points a game. Defensive frailty was seen as a huge problem for the Blues in 2012 when they conceded an average of 22.75 points per game.

"We are in a results-orientated business," says Redman, "but we have an improving and developing culture and we understand that it will take time for John to turn things around and get the outcomes we all want."

- Herald on Sunday

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