John Kirwan – Warrior #22 (1995-96): 35 games – 13 tries (52 points)
One of the most decorated All Blacks of all time, prolific rugby union winger John Kirwan joined the Auckland Warriors as a 30-year-old during the club’s inaugural season – just months after he announced his retirement from the then-amateur code.
Kirwan made his rugby union Test debut aged just 19 in 1984 and smashed New Zealand’s Test try-scoring record with 35 touchdowns in 63 matches during 11 seasons in the famous black jersey. He was a star of the All Blacks’ triumph in the inaugural 1987 Rugby World Cup and for the dominant Auckland provincial side.
The grandson of fellow code-swapper and 1926-27 New Zealand rugby league representative Jack Kirwan, the great ‘JK’ signed a two-year deal with the fledgling Warriors early in 1995. He made his first-grade debut in round six of 1995 against Illawarra, coming off the bench in a 38-12 victory that garnered the Warriors’ maiden competition points.
Kirwan’s searing break to put Gene Ngamu away for a try in his maiden start on the wing a week later against Parramatta confirmed some of the veteran’s old magic remained, while he bagged his first try with a fine finish in another momentous away win against Cronulla in Round 10.
Although his acquisition was derided as a publicity stunt by many cynics, Kirwan displayed the utmost professionalism and performed creditably in his first season with the Warriors, despite netting just three tries in 16 appearances.
That strike-rate improved markedly in 1996 – he was the Warriors’ top try-scorer with 10 in 19 games, including a stunning mid-season run of nine tries in eight games that encompassed doubles against Parramatta and Newcastle. He also filled in at fullback for one match in another victory over the Steelers, but ultimately finished the year on the bench as Auckland faded badly down the stretch.
Kirwan departed at the end of the season with his reputation intact after making an important contribution on and off the field, before returning to rugby union and finishing his career with Japanese club NEC.
Kirwan moved into coaching and guided Italy to the 2003 World Cup and Japan to the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, before taking over at Super Rugby franchise club the Blues in 2013.
First revealed in his 1992 autobiography Kirwan: Running on Instinct, he battled depression for a large part of his career and has been a tireless public campaigner for mental health and depression awareness in New Zealand.
Kirwan was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his services to the causes in 2007, and was knighted Sir John in the Queen’s Birthday and Diamond Jubilee Honours List in 2012.