Rugby Union: Kirwan is fit to fly after winging back: All Black restored in body and mind as tourists come up with head count. Steve Bale reports from Wellington

Click to follow
FOR John Kirwan the midlife crisis, when it inevitably came, was not simply a matter of loss of form or over- familiarity with rugby. The unsurpassed All Blacks wing, an international since he was 19, was a clinically diagnosed depressive.

This is the player whose 34 tries in 54 Tests are a New Zealand record, as are his 66 tries in all matches for the All Blacks. Bearing in mind that the next-best in All Blacks Tests are Terry Wright and Stuart Wilson way back on 19 tries, Kirwan's figures will probably never be beaten. His try against the Lions at Eden Park last Saturday was his 89th for Auckland.

Kirwan, now 28, recovered a while ago and is back in the New Zealand team to face the British Isles at Athletic Park on Saturday after missing the first Test because he had only just returned from a fifth season playing for Treviso in north-east Italy. Nice work - around pounds 50,000 a year in Kirwan's case - if you can get it, though it should be stressed that his wife, Fiorella, is Italian.

It is not indelicate to discuss Kirwan's condition, since he did so himself with painful candour in his autobiography published in New Zealand last year. That he has overcome it and is still good enough to come straight into the All Blacks Test side is testimony to the strength of character and of body of one of the rugby world's supreme performers.

We are talking of a new Kirwan, a Kirwan with experience on his side but not quite the fizzing sprinter of the 1987 World Cup nor the irresistible battering-ram of subsequent years. Indeed, there was a time when he was both. But he never quite recaptured his pace after a severe Achilles- tendon injury invalided him out of the 1989 All Blacks tour of Wales. He tried to make up in power, a sort of brute strength really, what he had lost.

In the end he became too muscle- bound and sluggish, so much so that, by the end of the 1992 New Zealand season and only just getting over his depressions, for the first time in his long and illustrious career he had lost his form. 'It was just one of those things but I knew I wasn't playing well and needed to look at my game,' he said.

'I felt I needed a bit more pace, which meant I needed to be a little bit lighter. So when I went off to Italy I set about it and I believe I'm a better player as a result. Maybe I have lost a bit of contact power, simply because I'm not as heavy as I was, but my strength is as good as it was and my game is more complete.'

When Kirwan says he has lost a bit of weight, he means the better part of two stone, from 16 1/2 st to less than 15st, a huge difference which has unquestionably undermined the force of that characteristic diagonal charge off the right wing which has brought him so many tries.

But not only is he now faster than then, he is also more skilful, certainly than a year ago. The try he scored for Auckland against the Lions, picking up Lee Stensness's grub-kick off the floor, reflected a man returned towards a peak of form. 'I was running back from the try and Sean Fitzpatrick told me I'd never have scored that one last year,' Kirwan said.

His journey from the pitch-darkness of depression to his new enlightenment provides a heartening tale of a young man overcoming the most acute difficulty. Kirwan's career had scarcely paused for breath from the moment he first made the Auckland team in 1983. He faced Ciaran Fitzgerald's Lions for Auckland as an 18- year-old.

The following year he was capped. In 1986, he was one of only two of the then All Blacks - the other was David Kirk - to reject a place on the New Zealand Cavaliers' unsanctioned tour to South Africa. By the 1987 World Cup he was in the prime of his rugby life, the 85-yard try he scored for the All Blacks in the tournament opener against Italy still regarded here as one of Test rugby's supreme individual tries.

Kirwan battled back from his 1989 injury in eight months, a remarkable recovery from such an awful setback, but it was about this time that the attacks began, a mixture of anxiety and self-doubt quite out of keeping with the apparent confidence of a prodigious talent. It finally reached its peak in 1991.

New Zealand lost to Australia in the World Cup semi-final in Dublin, with Kirwan a heroic figure in defeat, and the welcome that awaited them back home was sour and ungenerous. Kirwan, like everyone else, was forced to take stock of himself and it is fair to say not everything he saw was wholly acceptable. 'I intended to retire and the only thing that stopped me was two words: 'Don't be a dork, JK'.'

Two words? The friend who dissuaded him was Ric Salizzo, Kirwan's business partner and now the All Blacks' official image-maker. It then needed a winter in Italy to put things right, both in Kirwan's head and simply as a rugby player.

Away from the cares of New Zealand rugby he relaxed and enjoyed himself, came to realise that rugby need not be hard labour and, under the influence of Wayne Smith, a former All Blacks stand-off coaching Treviso, changed his mental approach. He also stuck to his no-sauce pasta diet.

'I reassessed where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do over the next two or three years. As I decided to keep playing, I realised I'd better sort myself out. At Wayne's suggestion, I sat down and set myself specific goals for each week. I visualise on a daily basis for 10 minutes what I want to do and what I need to do to achieve it. It has been excellent therapy for me; so has Italian rugby.'

When Kirwan got back to New Zealand there was a lobby for his immediate inclusion, sight-unseen, in the first Test. He did not subscribe to it and for virtually the first time in his international career he had to fight for his place. Another first: it took just two appearances for Auckland to state an irrefutable case.

'I knew that as I was late back and hadn't played in the All Black trials there was no way I would be in the first Test,' he said. 'First of all I was lucky to get in the Auckland side through someone else's injury. I tried not to think about the All Blacks but I couldn't help it and in actual fact it gave me an extra edge.

'Over a rugby career you have some good luck and bad; over the last three weeks mine has been very good. I only hope it continues in Saturday's Test.' As playing for New Zealand against the British Isles is the one thing Kirwan's career has not yet included, the Lions should probably expect the worst.