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‘We’re human’: Kirwan describes the ‘enormous amount of pressure’ on All Blacks

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Playing for the All Blacks is a goal that many New Zealanders spend years dreaming of. It’s an unrivalled honour, but a privilege that comes burdened with a roller coaster of emotions.


These mere mortals carry an almost unbearable weight of responsibility into every Test match. The All Blacks are practically looked at as Gods and are expected to play like it, too.

Rugby fans are glued to highlights reels and behind-the-scenes clips on social media whenever the All Blacks win. The taste of sweet, sweet victory is godly for players and fans alike.

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But the lows of defeat are tough.

Two-time World Rugby Player of the Year, Beauden Barrett, sent New Zealand into a state of euphoria when the All Black scored the final try of the 2015 Rugby World Cup final.

With less than two minutes to run on the clock, Barrett showed some tidy skills to score a try that will live on in All Blacks history forever. New Zealand became back-to-back World Cup winners for the first time.

Barrett let out a massive grin as he battered the ball into the air, but was tackled by a jubilant Julian Savea almost immediately afterwards. But it didn’t wipe the smile off his face.

Barrett and the All Blacks had made history.

But that same player has experienced some dark days as a rugby player.

New Zealand were beaten by northern hemisphere heavyweights Ireland in a series on home soil last year. It was the first time that had ever happened, and the hurt was felt across Aotearoa.


Barrett, 32, said on NZR+ docuseries All Blacks: In Their Own Words, “It’s not like someone’s died but it’s probably the next worst thing.” That quote is raw and reflective of New Zealand rugby culture.

Ahead of the All Blacks’ record defeat to the world champion Springboks at Twickenham last week, Barrett sat alongside teammates Sam Whitelock and Anton Lienert-Brown on a mental health panel.

The All Blacks trio were joined by Rugby World Cup winner Sir John Kirwan, who is a leading advocate for mental health awareness and prevention in New Zealand.

Kirwan said that these rugby players experience an “enormous amount of pressure” whenever they pull on the black jersey – and they “feel” it as well.


“It is our national identity, it’s what we hang our hat on,” Kirwan told RugbyPass in London.

“Any Kiwi, even if he doesn’t like rugby, and he comes to the UK or he’s driving through Portugal and he stops as a bar, they say ‘where are you from,’ you say ‘New Zealand’ and they say ‘All Blacks.’

“You take that pride that we have and the players feel that responsibility, we feel that responsibility passionately that we are representing our communities are our people.

“That creates an enormous amount of pressure and we feel that pressure, and you have to learn how to manage it.”

The man known as ‘JK’ by rugby fans, pundits and players is hoping to “change the world’ as he continues to speak openly about mental health and his challenge as an All Black.

Last week in London, New Zealand Rugby launched a groundbreaking partnership with Kirwan’s proactive wellbeing platform Groov.

The company will support those involved in community and grassroots programs, as well as high-performance teams including the All Blacks and Black Ferns.

“I think it’s fundamental for our sportspeople and our leaders across all sports, not just rugby, that everyone understands that we’re human,” Kirwan added.

“To perform you’ve got to get that mental health balance right – we all go through tough times. When you go through tough times you’ve got to have…that playbook.


“For me, it’s if you want to change the world, and as I mentioned before, we’ve got the power to change… It’s pretty exciting when great men like that come out and say it’s okay.”

In the same docuseries as Beauden Barrett, All Blacks veteran Dane Coles spoke about how a teacher at his child’s daycare was “ripping into me” after the disastrous series defeat.

“I couldn’t escape it,” Coles said. The pressure and expectation is relentless, but that’s the life of an All Black.

High-performance sport is tough. Kirwan felt the pain of defeat during a losing run with the Auckland Blues as head coach.

Kirwan won the 1987 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and went on to coach the Blues in Super Rugby, and both Italy and Japan in the international game.

The former All Black resigned as the Blues coach on June 18, 2015, following a disastrous campaign.

“It’s really, really hard, mate. It’s hard when you’re not performing in any sport so the mental side of the game is fundamental.

“Getting that balance right, being able to switch off.

“I remember, and I was mentally well, but when the Blues weren’t going well I wasn’t sleeping. I had to readdress that and say, ‘Well, if I’m not sleeping there’s going to be this spiral.’

“You’ve got to be really conscious of how you keep yourself in that performance care, and that performance care balance.

“People sometimes don’t see you as a person, they see you as a God or as a person that can deal with what you throw at them because they must be able to do that.

“They’re human and we’re all human. It’s something that you have to learn to compartmentalise, but some people can compartmentalise naturally, and some of us can’t. It’s something that I had to learn.”


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