By Chris Rattue

There is an Italian rugby saying which reckons that retirement from playing looms "when the training bag gets really heavy."

That time has come for the great All Black wing John Kirwan, who was confirmed yesterday as the new manager of the Super 12 Blues.

The 34-year-old Kirwan, his Italian wife, Fiorella, and their three children - all aged under seven - are heading to Auckland to live.


And Kirwan, who has been playing for the last three seasons with the Japanese club NEC, has immediately stepped into a high-profile rugby job with the Blues, who crashed in the Super 12 this year.

Kirwan will play his last game of rugby over the coming weeks in Japan. His team have won all four of their matches this year, but now face that country's three best teams as they try to make the playoffs.

A troublesome knee, which has been operated on three times, is getting too "wobbly" for Kirwan to play on. And, as he says, those tackle-bags really are getting heavier.

Kirwan said from his base in Abiko, just out of Tokyo, that he had long admired new Blues coach Gordon Hunter, and was eagerly looking towards helping to restore Auckland and Blues rugby as a provincial powerhouse.

Kirwan said Hunter, who was on the verge of being named Blues coach, sounded him out on ideas when Kirwan was in New Zealand on holiday this year.

One thing led to another, and Blues boss Geoff Hipkins said yesterday that Kirwan was the best candidate among many who applied for the job.

Kirwan's appointment is just for next season, and after that he will decide whether he wants to continue in rugby management, or maybe even try coaching.

"I am really excited about the job and especially working with Gordy. He is a fantastic bloke and a top coach, and I believe he is the sort of man players really want to play for," Kirwan said.

"I am passionate about Auckland rugby, which has given me so much in life.

"I was a butcher's boy who was given great opportunities - Auckland rugby played such a huge part in moulding me. I was just 18 when I started and it gave all those times on the field. I've been able to live in places like Japan, I've married an Italian, just so much.

"I now really want to give something back to Auckland. There is a lot of talk about professionalism but I believe it has nothing to do with the money.

"There are three things that are needed in any team. Passion, commitment and respect. I hope I can help to instil those things. You have to create a family environment.

"It is also the perfect opportunity for me to help a bit on the coaching side as well, with the experiences I've got."

Kirwan has some business interests in Auckland, including part ownership of the Leftfield bar on the Auckland waterfront, but he said everything else would be put on the backburner as he concentrated on the Blues job.

The return of Kirwan comes in the year when another Auckland great, Grant Fox, came back into the fold as the assistant NPC coach.

Kirwan said: "Foxy has done a fantastic job already. He stuck his hand up for Auckland rugby and I want to do the same."

Kirwan played in the forerunner to the Super 12, the Super 10, before retiring in 1994 after more than a decade with Auckland and the All Blacks.

He then had two seasons with the rugby league Warriors before heading to NEC, where he has played at centre, who include former All Black Liam Barry and ex-Auckland forward Ross Thompson.

Of retirement from playing, Kirwan said: "I'm not worried at all. I could have played another year but the knee is pretty wobbly. I've got some great memories and it is now time to move on."