Going against the grain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 March, 2008, 12:00am

Many New Zealanders might have rubbished the idea of the Bledisloe Cup being contested in Hong Kong, but former All Black wing John Kirwan is all for it, saying it is the right move as rugby seeks to raise its profile across Asia.

Never known to shirk a challenge on the field, the former star is equally willing to go against the majority of the New Zealand public who have condemned the November 1 clash between the Wallabies and the All Blacks at the Hong Kong Stadium, saying it is tantamount to a travelling circus.

'I think it is fantastic the Bledisloe Cup will be played in Hong Kong this year,' Kirwan said emphatically. 'You need high-profile games like these to lift the profile and promote rugby in Asia.'

His countrymen don't think so. The mood was black as New Zealand newspapers and talk-back radio were flooded with letters and calls from an irate public who blamed rugby officialdom for selling out their beloved game.

'Rugby is no longer our national game. It would appear it belongs to the highest bidder! I wonder if we will be able to afford games in New Zealand in the future,' Mikem from Auckland wrote on The New Zealand Herald website.

'This is so absurd,' added another. 'It would be laughable if it were not so sad. The All Blacks and the Wallabies reduced to a travelling circus to cater for a wealthier international audience, while the poor old rugby public back home is shut out from involvement. A foretaste of what will now develop over the near future.'

Kirwan, 43, hopes the public back home could see the bigger picture, the masterpiece where the game's expansion in Asia will one day result in teams like Japan and China becoming powerful forces.

'You need to grow the game in Asia for this is where the future is. The region has the biggest populations in the world and if rugby is to expand, you need countries like Japan being able to hold their own with the best,' says Kirwan, who played 63 tests for the All Blacks from 1984 to 1994 and scored a then record 35 tries.

Kirwan is now head coach of Japan's national 15-a-side set-up and it is his priority to foster the game there, and in Asia. In Hong Kong this weekend to oversee the progress of the Japanese sevens squad, the former All Black will tread the turf where he once appeared as a dashing winger.

'It was in sevens, not 15s, for New Zealand,' he said, smiling. 'I played in Hong Kong four times, but I must admit I never played in a Cup-winning team. I remember playing in three finals and losing twice to Fiji and once to Australia.'

Kirwan played in Hong Kong in the mid-80s, first arriving in 1983 when he was just coming to the notice of the All Black selectors. With no Super 14 rugby then, players from the Southern Hemisphere were more readily available for sevens and while Kirwan was turning out for New Zealand his great rival, David Campese, was running out for Australia.

Kirwan said: 'I had some great times out here. When I first came, it was a lot to do with having a good time. It was more about having a few beers. But then it became serious and all the emphasis was on fitness. It went from having a lot of fun to a lot of pain.'

There will be plenty of pain when players from Australia and New Zealand meet for the fourth time this season in the Bledisloe Cup - the first off-shore meeting outside a World Cup.

'I believe the players will love it and enjoy the game. It is on neutral turf and everything will be equal for both teams. I'm sure the players will see the positives of playing a game in Hong Kong. They will understand how important it is to promote rugby in this region,' said Kirwan, who had the honour of scoring the first try in a World Cup: a 70-metre dash against Italy in the opening match at the inaugural 1987 tournament.

Having traded pizza for sushi - moving from Italy whom he coached at the 2003 World Cup to Japan (he coached them at last year's edition in France) - Kirwan is now a diehard samurai and believes Hong Kong's Bledisloe Cup clash will be the first of many meetings overseas between the two sides.

'Japan is bidding for the 2015 World Cup and if the International Rugby Board wants proof that Japan can host a World Cup, it is important for the Japan Rugby Union to host big games like the Bledisloe Cup,' he said.

Kirwan backed Japan's failed bid to host the 2011 World Cup (New Zealand beat them by one vote at the IRB meeting), but is confident the region's rugby superpower will win the rights to host the 2015 tournament. 'It should be awarded to Japan,' he said. 'The future of the game lies in Asia.'