Rugby: Kirwan preaches message of success at Blues

By Michael Brown

John Kirwan, the coach for the Auckland Blues poses for media representatives at Eden Park. Photo / Getty Images.
John Kirwan, the coach for the Auckland Blues poses for media representatives at Eden Park. Photo / Getty Images.

There's more than a touch of evangelical about Sir John Kirwan, and it's just as well because he will have to do a lot to restore the faith of Aucklanders weary after a year of terrible underachievement.

The Blues finished a lowly 12th in 2102, a result which cost Pat Lam his job and resulted in a cleanout of the playing squad. When Kirwan announced his new squad of 32 in front of 750 members at a breakfast at Eden Park this morning, there were no fewer than 16 new players and 11 who had no Super Rugby experience.

Something had to change and Kirwan didn't disappoint. He attempted to lure a few big names to the region, including All Blacks first five-eighths Dan Carter, but was turned down and lost others like Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock to the Highlanders.

Instead he has assembled a squad he described as "young and exciting''.

"Fantastic. Exciting,'' he enthused. "I think it's going to be a real rollercoaster. Fasten the seatbelts, here we go. That's what it is going to have to be about. I think it's a great opportunity to put a new football side out there and start again and that's what we have done.''

It was a message well received by the Blues faithful who want to head into a new season with optimism but the only true measure of success is what happens on the playing field. Kirwan enjoyed a lot in his playing days and was part of an Auckland side that was undefeated on Eden Park over four years. Times have changed.

He will lean on the past and has employed former players and teammates Michael Jones, Joe Stanley, Craig Innes, Joeli Vidiri and Gus Collins to mentor his new squad and educate them on what they think it means to be a Blues player.

There is some synergy in the fact Kirwan was only 18 when he was first plucked by John Hart from the Marist third grade side to play for Auckland. He was given a chance as a youngster and took it, going on to score 35 tries in 63 tests for the All Blacks, and very early in his Blues coaching tenure decided to plump for youth.

He acknowledges it's a risky strategy but it also allows him and assistant coaches Sir Graham Henry, Mick Byrne and Grant Doorey to mould them more easily than a bunch of grizzled veterans. There are a handful of experienced players, like Ali Williams, Piri Weepu and Keven Mealamu, but many more still with the training wheels on.

Virtually all have something to prove, like giant prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi, loose forward Brendan O'Connor and first five-eighths Baden Kerr and even returnees like Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Steven Luatua still need to truly establish themselves on the New Zealand rugby landscape. Kirwan will only hope a similar transformation to the ones that happened at the Hurricanes and Highlanders will happen for the Blues.

"The inexperience of the side will cost us sometimes but it will also bring excitment,'' Kirwan said. "It's a project. How quickly we can get them playing how we want will be a wait-and-see. I think the first season will be a rollercoaster so fasten your seatbelts.''

How many fans jump on for the ride and remain there will not only depend results but how the team play. If nothing else, Kirwan wants his charges to play with energy and commitment but they have been handed a difficult start to their campaign with games against the Hurricanes, Crusaders, Bulls, Waratahs and Chiefs.

"If we can finish the season and we are knocking on the door of making the playoffs, then I think that's a realistic goal.

"If you can walk away being proud if we lose, that will be a huge success for us. But I have never lost. I might lose a game but I have never lost. If we lose, we get up on Sunday and work a little bit harder.''

Forwards: Kane Barrett, Anthony Boric, Luke Braid, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Quentin MacDonald, Tom McCartney, Keven Mealamu, Liaki Moli, Brendon O'Connor, James Parsons, Tim Perry, Ronald Raaymakers, Culum Retallick, Peter Saili, Angus Ta'avao, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Ali Williams.

Backs: Malakai Fekitoa, Jamison Gibson-Park, Frank Halai, Bryn Hall, Baden Kerr, Marty McKenzie, George Moala, Waisake Naholo, Chris Noakes, Charles Piutau, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, Piri Weepu, Jackson Willison.


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