Rugby fans in Auckland should welcome the opportunity to make a clean break from the chronic underachievement of their Super Rugby franchise in recent seasons.
The Blues took a step in the right direction this week by sacking incumbent coach Pat Lam, who had been in charge at Eden Park for the last four years.
Auckland managed just one appearance in the playoffs under Lam’s stewardship, and finished twelfth on the overall ladder this season with only four wins.
Despite his inability to produce results for the Blues, Lam will rightly remain a highly respected figure in the region, having previously guided Auckland’s provincial side to two titles and an amazing unbeaten season in New Zealand’s domestic competition.
His vacated position as coach of the Blues will be filled for the next two years by former All Black Sir John Kirwan, an old Auckland favourite. During his playing career, Kirwan represented both the region and his nation with distinction, scoring 35 tries in 63 test matches.
Many of the players on Auckland’s roster have the potential to score tries at a similar rate. A franchise which boasts the services of Isaia Toeava, Rudi Wulf, Rene Ranger and Ma’a Nonu should realistically have little trouble penetrating opposition defenses.
At times the players live up to their reputations in attack, but such moments are far too few in number to earn sustained success against Super Rugby’s classier sides.
Kirwan must coax his new charges into displaying greater consistency with the ball, while combining the Blues’ obvious firepower with an unrelenting intensity over eighty minutes in defense.
It is difficult to judge the quality of Kirwan’s coaching record at this stage of his career. He has ample experience at the international level, having guided both Italy (2002-2005) and Japan (2007-2011) for significant periods of time.
Both teams performed almost exactly to expectations under Kirwan’s tutelage, given their respective places in the hierarchy of international competition. Italy maintained its place at the foot of first tier rugby and Japan continued to be one of the world’s more impressive minnows.
Kirwan was neither a dismal failure nor a roaring success in either role. Auckland fans will undoubtedly hope that he can reach greater heights with more talent at his disposal.
The Blues are beset by more problems than any other team in the New Zealand conference. They have recruited poorly over recent seasons, failing to find that crucial balance between raw skill and maturity. The players have been over-trained and under-coached, entering games without sufficient mental preparation while already somewhat fatigued.
These factors can be changed immediately by the new coaching staff. For too long the Blues have played inconsistent and undisciplined rugby. Kirwan must bring more nuance and intelligence to the team’s game-plan, while pushing his talented players to take responsibility on the field and realise their full potential.
Nobody really has any idea how Kirwan will do at this level. The Blues are notoriously unpredictable, and coaching them is one of the toughest gigs in New Zealand rugby.
But if he succeeds, with significant international experience behind him, Kirwan could anoint himself as the de facto heir to current All Blacks boss Steve Hansen.
The Auckland coaching job is high risk, high reward. Just like the Blues’ style of play.