Who would have predicted at the start of the season that heading into round 3 of Super Rugby, the Blues would be two from two, have two 4 try bonus points to go with that and sit joint top of the NZ conference? All this from a side of complete no names, a group in rebuild mode, a team with no passion from a city fed up with the lack of heart shown for far too long from this once mighty province.
How a couple of weeks have thrown early season predictions and expectations out the window. The catalyst for this shock start to the season? Well put it down to one man, Auckland’s most famous butcher, and no I am not talking about the Mad Butcher.
That’s right, I am talking about the butcher’s apprentice from Mangere, the man who went on to become one of the world’s great wingers, an All Black great, a world cup winner, a man who is fluent in Italian and proficient in Japanese, a man who has received a knighthood for his work in facing headfirst the problems with depression, a man who has travelled the world before returning for this challenge in his beloved Auckland. The JK effect is there, its powerful, its stirring, its building and I for one am loving it.
Ok, maybe I am getting carried away, I mean we are only two weeks in and the season is a marathon not a sprint, championships aren’t handed out in February afterall. ‘Surely the Blues will falter’ the naysayers will say, ‘how will the young guns fare in South Africa, once injuries kick in and when the weather turns?’ are just some of the questions they will justifiably ask.
The people of Auckland have for too long been apathetic to their rugby side, once a rugby superpower, the City of Sails lost its rugby soul. The rugby heartlanders south of the Bombay Hills profess that it’s because Aucklanders have been too busy sipping flat whites talking about capital gains on their latest beach house property or paddle boarding around Rangitoto rather than supporting their team. ‘Rugby just isn’t in their blood’ the southerners argue. Throw in, season upon season of poor results, little passion, low crowds, rugby in NZs big smoke has been dying a slow death.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, arise the great Sir JK. Kirwan has come into the role, a position that has proved more a poisoned chalice than the great opportunity it should be, and been clear from day one about what he is trying to achieve. No miracles. No talk of winning the competition or even making the playoffs. JK has made it his stated goal to get the city back behind the team, to make them believe, to make them proud of their team again.
As a proud Aucklander and a player who shared so many great moments in such an illustrious Auckland career, he could see that the team had lost its connection to the city. He could see that the rugby team was no longer in the fabric of the city. This was of great concern to Kirwan who identified that Auckland, as the largest Polynesian city in the world, is sitting on the greatest pool of natural rugby talent anywhere.
What stands out to me about JK is that he is not your normal rugby coach or in fact New Zealander. He is a guy who has travelled extensively having been overseas for 15 years in which time he coached both the Italian and Japanese national sides. Kirwan understands cultures and the different and positive ideas they can bring and contribute. JK once told the Italian side that he wanted them to play like Italians drive - frantic, crazy, angry, passionate, he wanted them to identify their playing style with their culture and who they were. It seems he is trying to bring this philosophy to the Blues, JK seems to have embraced the melting pot that Auckland is and from what we have seen from the first few games is encouraging the team to play with that confident, powerful, flamboyant manner reflecting the way Aucklanders see their city.
Perhaps though, the most significant point of difference that JK brings is his understanding of people and what makes them tick. Having dealt with depression himself and having been the face and spokesman for depression and for men facing this common illness, JK understands that life is challenging, that young men will face problems outside the rugby environment, that you need to understand the complexities of people to truly bring out the best in them. JK seems to have this ability and this could be the key to finally unlocking this sides great potential.
There is a long way to go, there will be bumps on the journey but so long as Sir JK keeps heading in the direction he is, the city will continue to back him and the team. Rugby excitement is building in the city of sails again, I for one can’t wait for next week’s game.
All hail Sir JK, let the good times roll on.
By Cameron Avery
By Cameron Avery