The greatest wingers of all time: John Kirwan
John Kirwan won the 1987 World Cup with New Zealand. The attacking prowess he showed in that tournament alone, set him up to be one of the greatest wingers of all time
Major clubs: Auckland, Treviso, Auckland Warriors, NEC Green Rockets
Country: New Zealand
Test span: 1984-94
Test caps: 63 (62 starts)
Test points: 143 (35T)
When John Kirwan sprinted and swerved from his own 22 to cross the Italy try-line during the very first World Cup match in 1987, the All Black couldn’t have guessed that try would still be rated by many as the greatest scored at a RWC tournament fully 28 years later.
But it was just one example of the unstoppable attacking force that was Kirwan, as he shredded defences like paper throughout his career. He scored six tries at that World Cup, including two in the semi-final win over Wales and one in the final against France (and two days later he was back chopping meat in his dad’s butcher’s shop).
The next year Kirwan was at it again, notching ten tries in a five-Test salvo, including four against Wales in Christchurch – he ended his All Blacks career win a 79% win rate. What made him so deadly? He was quick, powerful and had a swerve that could wrong-foot oncoming defenders, and he stood at 6ft 4in, which was huge for a wing in that era.
After the 1987 World Cup semi-final he gave Mark Ring his shorts as a memento, and when Ring gave them to Wales lock Huw Richards to try on, there was a problem. “Their wing’s shorts were too big for our second-row: enough said,” wrote Ring in in his autobiography.
Kirwan came from Marist Brothers Old Boys into the Auckland side in 1983 when he was 18 and within a year he was making his Test debut. he won the Ranfurly Shield and NPC with Auckland and scored an astonishing eight tries in one match against North Otago in 1993. Other teams to benefit from Kirwan’s talents were Treviso in Italy, Auckland Warriors rugby league side from 1995-96, and NEC Green Rockets in Japan, his last club before retiring in 1999.
He went on to coach Italy and Japan at World Cups, and the Blues until last year. Kirwan was knighted for services to mental health awareness and rugby, after writing about suffering from depression in his book All Blacks Don’t Cry.