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Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 12:01 GMT
Kirwan warms to Italian job
Italy coach John Kirwan
Kirwan first moved to Italy 16 years ago

Italy already has good reason to remember John Kirwan with a mixture of awe and despair.

Of his 35 tries for New Zealand, an 80-metre solo effort against the Azzurri in the 1987 World Cup stands out as one of the great individual scores.

But the wincing memory of the former All Black running rings around their hapless rugby team could soon be replaced by different emotions.

By Saturday night, Kirwan may be hailed as the man who helped Italy find the forgotten path to a Six Nations Championship victory - three years and 15 matches after their last.

This is the probably the least experienced side we have taken into the tournament

John Kirwan,
Italy coach
Unlike many southern hemisphere coaches working around Europe, Kirwan can legitimately claim to have an emotional stake in the success of his work.

"I have an Italian wife, an Italian passport, I live in Italy," he points out.

"As far as I am concerned I am Italian now. I think like an Italian. I love the country."

It is not a fleeting passion either. His love affair with Italy started 16 years ago when he first came to play for Benetton Treviso, and the game was still amateur.

He has been married to his Italian wife, Fiorella, for the last decade and is a fluent Italian speaker.

"I think it is really important I can communicate with the players and get my message across," he said.

"Being able to speak the language obviously helps, but you need to understand the people and the culture in another country."

One thing Kirwan does understand is that in a football-obsessed country, rugby desperately needs to be associated with winning.

A 34-20 victory over Scotland in 2000 was a memorable debut in the Six Nations, but victory number two has been too long coming.

"It is a double-edged sword," Kirwan explains.

"Ours is a young team, raw in international terms, and this is the probably the least experienced side we have taken into the tournament.

John Kirwan on the run for the All Blacks in the 1987 World Cup
Kirwan was one of the great All Blacks wings
"But Italy needs this win. There are 60 million passionate people in this country and we need this result to harness that passion and grow the game."

Kirwan's current watchword is "osare" - the Italian for 'taking a risk' or 'being daring.'

Last year Italy appeared content with a damage-limitation game plan, designed to frustrate the opposition but not much else.

"Our challenge is to risk winning, to still be in the game with 10 minutes to go," Kirwan insists.

To that aim, home games against Wales, on Saturday, and Ireland seven days later, appear Italy's best hope of halting their three-year losing streak.

"It is important we start well," Kirwan admits. "We want to put the passion into our game straightaway.

"If we win, it would be fantastic for the game here.

"But if we don't, the players have to come off the field knowing they have given everything."

As one of the stars of an all-conquering All Blacks side, losing was a distinctly unfamilar experience for Kirwan.

Given his past achievements, it would be a surprise if he didn't taste victory again sooner rather than later.


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