When John Kirwan was a small boy, he’d think about rugby all the time. And when he wasn’t thinking about it, he was playing it. It’s hardly surprising: The sport is in his blood. His father and grandfather were top players, and his uncle Teddy was an All Black trialist. “I probably learned to say the words ‘All Blacks’ before I learnt to say ‘mum and dad’,” laughs Kirwan (now Sir John Kirwan). “As a kid, I slept every night clutching a rugby ball.”
But he wasn’t just an obsessive fan of rugby, he was also incredibly good at it, blessed with the skill that would ultimately propel him into the professional game’s upper echelons. After making a name for himself as a winger at club level, he made his international debut at the age of 19. His agility and finishing ability were immediately apparent. “I had size and speed,” he admits, “although I was never out and out fast. What I worked on was getting close enough to my opposition to leave them on the ground.”
It was a strategy that worked wonders, allowing him to score 35 tries in 63 internationals, the New Zealand record at the time. He was top scorer at the inaugural Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987, helping the All Blacks lift the famous Webb Ellis Cup trophy for the first time. He would later play for Italian team Benetton Rugby Treviso and Japanese Top League team NEC Green Rockets before turning to coaching, first for the Italian national side and then the Japanese team.