Kirwan the philosopher prince of Italy

All Black great tries to make winning an eternal habit
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If John Kirwan believes in Father Christmas, he is entitled to think that Italy can beat Ireland in Rome next Sunday. "Santa Claus is coming to town," he said, repeatedly, at the launch of the Six Nations in a quadrangle close to Westminster Abbey.

If John Kirwan believes in Father Christmas, he is entitled to think that Italy can beat Ireland in Rome next Sunday. "Santa Claus is coming to town," he said, repeatedly, at the launch of the Six Nations in a quadrangle close to Westminster Abbey.

In his third season in the competition, Kirwan, a former All Black wing who ran rings round Italy in Auckland in the first match of the first World Cup 18 years ago, is still talking a good game.

"My players are under instructions to drink water, don't be naughty, go to bed early and, like kids on Christmas Eve, they are looking forward to a present. I believe in Santa and I believe we can beat Ireland. If I didn't I might as well pack my bag and go home.

"I hope we can play a significant part in this tournament. My goal is to get a squad of 30 competitive players. If I can put my best side on the field we can compete against anyone."

Italy's problem is in extending their nativity play beyond 80 minutes. They have recorded famous victories at Stadio Flaminio in the Eternal City, over Scotland (twice) and Wales, but they have never been able to put a sequence together and have found it impossible to win away from home. It is turning into an eternal quest for the one-win wonders to make a more lasting impression.

Kirwan, who has an Italian wife and an Italian passport, took over as coach from his compatriot Brad Johnstone in 2002, but his adopted country have never finished better than fifth in a six-horse race. Nevertheless, he has been rewarded with a long-term contract which gives him a chance to build for the 2007 World Cup.

Kirwan has recruited heavily from the Under-21s and entrusted the captaincy to the 24-year-old lock forward Marco Bortolami. "We've got a young pack but they're not raw," Kirwan said. "They've got a World Cup and two Six Nations under their belts. I'm sure we can win our fair share of possession from the piano pushers, but I'm not so sure about the pianists."

Kirwan has finally acknow-ledged that the hugely talented Mauro Bergamasco belongs in the back-row rather than loitering without intent on the wing. Mauro and his young brother Mirco, a centre, helped Stade Français reach the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.

"We've got to start thinking like winners and thinking like the other countries, rather than just targeting one game," Kirwan added. Italy's autumn programme was a bit like their Six Nations - a couple of steps forward, three back. They beat the United States and Canada, and then conceded 50 points to the All Blacks,

"I'm learning every day," Kirwan said. "And that was a humbling defeat for us. I felt sick. I'm waiting for the moment when my team become adults. When they do I'll kiss you all. I smacked my son on the arm the other day and he cried. I wasn't punishing him, I was swatting a mosquito. The point is, you have to experience pain as you grow up, and it's the same with my team."

Kirwan isn't the Azzurri's only philosopher. "Saying you have to believe in yourself is not the same as saying I do believe," said Bortolami, who plays for Narbonne. "The other teams are not waiting for us to catch up, which means that every year it gets harder."

Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, dismissed a suggestion that the Six Nations had evolved into a two-tier tournament. "It doesn't exist," O'Sullivan said. "This is inter-national rugby and you can't take anything for granted. If you do, your whole season can collapse."

Is this Italy's year for doing something, Kirwan was asked. "We're always doing something in Italy," he replied. "We have the players to be more consistent, but you have to understand that we're a Latin team, sponsored by Jaguar and playing in an Anglo-Saxon competition. We're growing, and Treviso's performance in the Heineken Cup was a bonus.

"Television coverage of rugby has increased in Italy by up to 18 per cent. It's seen as a sport for young men. Mind you, I read the other day that 40 per cent of all statistics are worthless."

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