New Zealand All Black great: John Kirwan

John Kirwan - a former All Black wing, who dabbled in league before turning international coach - is considered one of New Zealand’s most successful rugby players of all time.

John Kirwan - a former All Black wing, who dabbled in league before turning international coach - is considered one of New Zealand’s most successful rugby players of all time.

From his dramatic first-class debut and subsequent high profile career as an All Black, through to his extensive work with mental health awareness - Kirwan has become a household name and well respected ambassador of New Zealand and his sport.

Rugby heritage
John James Patrick Kirwan was born on 16 December 1964 into a family rich in rugby heritage, with representative players on both parents'' sides.

His grandfather Jack Kirwan played rugby union for Hawke’s Bay and league for Auckland. His mother was a member of the noted Hedge family of Otahuhu that provided many Auckland reps.

John Kirwan was just 18 when he was plucked from the Auckland Marist third grade side to play first division - having been spotted by talent scouts and then coach John Hart, who trained Auckland and the All Blacks.

Tall, strong wing
At nearly 1.90m tall and strongly built, John Kirwan was unusual in stature for a wing and - coupled with his considerable pace, determination and maturity - made a major impression on the rugby field from the outset.

The promising young player’s successful 1983 debut season playing for Auckland and the New Zealand Colts made him a contender for the All Black tour of Scotland and England that year, but selectors decided he was too young.

Kirwan gained his All Black jersey a year later when he debuted against France in Christchurch. However, his 1984 season ended in disappointment and frustration when he was ruled out of the All Blacks'' tour of Australia with a serious shoulder injury in only the second match.

Hampered by injury

Injury continued to plague Kirwan throughout his career - though when he was well, he was considered an automatic All Black selection from 1985 through to 1992.

Rapid growth during his teenage years - he grew 30cms between the ages of 15 and 16 - meant Kirwan was prone to hamstring problems because of strains imposed on his back.

The worst of his injuries came in 1989, on a tour of Wales and Ireland, when he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Rugby career
Despite injuries and off-seasons spent playing overseas, especially in Italy, Kirwan remained a world-class wing. In 1992, he became the first All Black back to reach the 50-test milestone.

John Kirwan played at wing for 96 appearances, including 63 test matches as an All Black from 1984 until 1994.

At his peak from 1986 to 1988, Kirwan was considered even better than his greatest rival - Australia’s David Campese.

During the All Blacks’ 23 tests and unbeaten run from 1987 - 1990, Kirwan played a major role scoring 10 tries in five tests against Wales and Australia in 1988.

In all Kirwan scored 35 test tries for the All Blacks, and 67 tries in total for appearances with the All Blacks - a New Zealand record. His 199 first-class tries is also a New Zealand record for first-class rugby.

Rugby league
Shortly after retiring from rugby, Kirwan was lured back to play for the Warriors in their first two seasons in Australian league in 1995-96.

He then spent time as a player-coach in Japan, had a stint as a manager and assistant coach with the Blues in the Super 12, before returning to Italy where he became the national team''s coach in 2002.

In 1997 John Kirwan was awarded the MBE. (Member of the Order of the British Empire), and 10 years later the ONZM. (Officer of the Order of New Zealand Merit) for his services to mental health awareness.

In 2007 Kirwan was appointed coach of the Japan national rugby union team. Shortly after, the team drew 12-12 with Canada breaking a 16-year, 13-match losing cycle.

Nature''s ''Disneyland''
While he currently commutes to Japan to fulfil his coaching role, Kirwan spends as much time as possible in New Zealand. He is married with three children and speaks fluent Japanese and Italian.

Kirwan’s personal battle with depression led him to become an ambassador for mental health and depression awareness campaigns in New Zealand - work for which he was honoured with the ONZM.

Leisure time is spent at a family beach house at Waihi Beach on the east coast of the North Island - though Kirwan says choosing a favourite spot in New Zealand is a hard ask.

"For me New Zealand is nature’s Disneyland ... you can do rafting, skiing, surfing - anything that nature lovers’ desire. The nice thing is to get up and say ‘I’m gonna try this’ ... this is what I love about it.

"I also love Auckland because I find it so vibrant all the time … very fast moving, you can go surfing and sailing, walking on Rangitoto Island - it is this cosmopolitan city like any other in the world but it’s also sporty. It’s got a beautiful combination," says Kirwan.

2011 Rugby World Cup
John Kirwan says his Japanese rugby team is looking forward to being in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

"The team is excited to be coming to New Zealand and to perform well in the home of rugby is going to be really special for us," he says.

Kirwan says the Japanese team’s goal is to make it into the top eight at RWC 2011.

John Kirwan has been appointed as an ambassador for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, along with fellow rugby greats Sean Fitzpatrick, Jonah Lomu, David Kirk, Andrew Mehrtens and Michael Jones.

More information

New Zealand''s 2011 rugby ambassadors

NZ rugby ambassador Andrew Mehrtens

NZ rugby ambassador David Kirk

NZ rugby ambassador Jonah Lomu

NZ rugby ambassador Michael Jones

NZ rugby ambassador Sean Fitzpatrick