Niko Kirwan, son of the legendary All Black John, is blazing his own trail with a different shape ball.

This week, the 21-year-old signed his first professional football contract with Italian third-tier club AC Mestre.

"People are always going to assume you're there because of your dad," said Kirwan junior, speaking from the side's training camp in the mountains outside Venice.

"I saw some online comments saying, 'Of course someone with a famous dad got signed rather than someone who is better,' but that's all talk. It's not easy, but that's what I have to deal with."


Ironically, the initial contact with Mestre came through Niko's sister Francesca, who had a friend who knew one of the club's secretaries. Kirwan emailed some video footage to the coaching staff who invited him train for two days, with no promises. Despite none of his wary team-mates speaking to him at all, Kirwan impressed enough to be included in a 12-day pre-season camp, during which he earned a one-year deal with an option for a second.

It's a homecoming of sorts for Kirwan who spent ten years as a youngster in Italy. It was there his love for football was born, as well as a fluency in Italian with mum Fiorella speaking only in her native tongue to Niko and his siblings.

Upon his return to Auckland as a teenager, Kirwan attended Sacred Heart College under the tutelage of former New Zealand captain and now under-17 coach Danny Hay, who he credits with instilling the mental fortitude needed to become a pro.

"When you step into a pro trial, no-one is talking to you and it's just you and your mind, it can play tricks on you," said Kirwan.

"You just have to be strong and keep pushing every day."

Thankfully, putting pen to paper has been the catalyst for much warmer relations with his team-mates who have now accepted the young kiwi into the fold.

The road to Mestre hasn't been an easy one. Kirwan was rejected by the Wellington Phoenix after a short trial and began to question his ability, signing instead for Miramar Rangers and beginning a degree in marketing and management. He joined Team Wellington last summer, producing a series of eye-catching performances.

As his son - who never played rugby - started to make footballing waves, Sir John took it upon himself to school up on an unfamiliar code, reading the autobiographies of Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho.


"He tries to give me advice - some is good, some is irrelevant - but I appreciate his support," laughs Niko.

And that support and advice has obviously gotten through.

"I just have to work hard every day and show I'm good enough for this level. This is just the beginning."