What Sir John Kirwan has learned about living well - and why he’s determined to help young Kiwis learn, too.
Sir John Kirwan is relaxed. Standing in his kitchen chopping parsley and garlic, the view of Rangitoto floating on the sea in front of him, Kirwan appears intensely peaceful. He adores Auckland. This city is his first home. It’s a city that gave so much to him. Even if the city threw it all back in his face, in what was supposed to be the crowning moment of his career, “his dream job”. The trauma of his failure in three seasons at the helm of the Blues is the reason it was likely his last coaching job; his final direct involvement in rugby. He seems comfortable with that, with where he’s at. The weight of rugby gone. He’s got more important things to do now - food, wine, family, and New Zealand’s mental health.
Kirwan has a second home on the other side of the world where a large piece of his heart lives and he returns for as many months as possible every year. “We come from Veneto,” he says; the region in Italy’s northeast famous for Prosecco and radicchio lettuce. Italy feels nearly as important to him as New Zealand. Home is the city of Treviso where he moved to play for the Benetton Rugby Club as a 21 year-old in 1986. He fell in love with the country, its language and culture, its food and wine, and Fiorella, who would become his wife.
From the kitchen he yells across the house in Italian to his daughter Francesca (24), searching for the salt. She throws sass back at him handing him the sale from under his nose. Father and daughter banter in the dramatic performance that appears absolutely necessary any time someone speaks Italian.
When Kirwan speaks Italian it amplifies his unexpected rugged sophistication. He’s permanently well dressed, the thick black frames of his Gucci glasses now a signature look. When the rugby playing 20 year-old butcher’s son from Mangere (who dropped out of school at 15) was given a chance to play professional rugby in Italy for a club sponsored by a global fashion brand, everything changed.
“I turned up, not quite in a Swanndri, but looking like a New Zealander in 1986 and I worked for one of the biggest fashion houses in the world. Guys were talking about fashion like I would hear from my sisters. That got me into it,” he says.
It’s Labour weekend and the entire country is drenched in sun, and I’ve invited myself over for an Italian lunch at the Kirwans’ beautiful family home in Mission Bay. Kirwan plods around the kitchen in bare feet. Tagliatelle is dropped in a pot of boiling water. I’ve brought a pork ragù for lunch - partly a koha, partly a chance to show off to some Italians - and it simmers on the stove.
Kirwan goes back to chopping the parsley and garlic, before running olive oil through it to create a fragrant bright green dressing for lunch. He’s a good cook, but also a committed student, aware of his deficiencies and eager to keep learning. He loves food. Last week he made a pheasant ragù, cut with chicken to reduce the gamey flavours for his family’s more delicate palates. He’s got a sausage-making machine downstairs that he hasn’t used yet, but his youngest son Luca (19) misses Italian sausages so he’s promised to make some. His kitchen is rustic, and very mediterranean, with pots and pans hanging in front of exposed brick wall. There are herbs and bottles of wine and olive oil scattered throughout the room.
Kirwan pours us all a wine - a merlot from his JK14 range. The wine is bright, rich, flavours of ripe blackberry and plums. It’s big and bold and it tastes like Italy with notes of sage and oregano. He’s named the wine Cicco - “the fatty” - a tribute to his close friend, a former front rower for Italy, and the full bodied versatility of the merlot.
Three years ago, with Francesca, he started a wine and liqueur company to bring a small piece of his second home back to New Zealand. He wanted to turn 30 years of passion for Italian wine and food into a family business. From an assortment of hand picked vineyards and distilleries around Treviso he bottles wines and spirits that tell a story of the region and its people.
The idea is to expose Kiwis to something different to all the discounted supermarket pinot noirs, chardonnays and sauvignon blancs, teach them about the history of Malanotte, and why you should drink Carménère at lunch.
He taught me how to enjoy grappa: dip your finger in your glass then rub it on the soft skin on the outside of your hand between your thumb and first finger. It should smell crisp and clean, with the essence of grapes. If it smells like dirty old socks don’t drink it. He taught me the way Italians drink wine every day and told me the stories each wine tells about Veneto.
Francesca tests the pasta and Kirwan is told something firmly in Italian about “el dente”. He strains the tagliatelle into the pot of ragù. I’ve brought a block of parmesan cheese for the pasta, which I offer to grate.
“Ours will be better mate. Every time we come into New Zealand we nearly get arrested, we bring back 2kgs of cheese each.”
He’s right. His Parmigiano Reggiano is sharp, chalky and crystallised, with full on umami (mine was from Countdown). We sit down at the beautiful wooden table at the end of the kitchen, pour another glass of wine, and commit to the food - giant plates of rich pasta and a caprese salad. It’s all very Italian.
Sir John Kirwan is frustrated. When I caught up with him during Mental Health Week, he appeared sad but motivated. Fifteen years ago, the decision to speak publicly about his mental health was the “hardest thing I ever did,” he says. He’s proud of how he helped open the conversation about depression, but angry that it appears to have had limited effect on New Zealand’s mental health statistics. He wants results.
“When I first came out in the awareness campaign I thought I would ruin everything that I had worked hard for. And it was a really, really difficult choice. I decided it was so bad in there, if I could help one person then it was worth it,” he says.
“But one of the most disappointing things for me is new statistics have come out and we’ve gone from 606 suicides per annum to 668. Our statistics are heading in the wrong direction.”
In August 1991 Kirwan’s depression hit “ground zero”. On a long tour with the All Blacks to Argentina his anxiety attacks, which had been his dark companion for a number of years, had become sustained and more intense. When he arrived home in Auckland he “fell apart”.
He became a prisoner of his darkest thoughts. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t get out of bed, trapped shaking, sweating and crying. It was the only time he ever missed a game.
But at rock bottom he found something that changed everything. Held in the arms of his brother-in-law like a child, Kirwan realised people wanted to help him, and he started to seek out those people who could help. It had taken him years to acknowledge his depression. But when he did it provided hope. By acknowledging his vulnerability he was able to start getting better.
In the early 90s it wasn’t something anyone talked about. But once he did he found a gift in his depression. Without it Kirwan believes he wouldn’t have grown to be as sensitive, as caring or as well rounded as he is now.
And that’s why Kirwan chose to tell his story. Despite his fears, he hoped opening up would help others find their way out of depression’s black hole. When Kirwan joined the government’s Like Minds, Like Mine campaign the effect was huge. He was at the centre of a huge shift in the stigma associated with mental health. For a generation of New Zealanders who never watched Kirwan score tries on the wing for Auckland and the All Blacks, this has defined his image as a Kiwi hero.
“And it’s been exactly the opposite of what I thought. It’s been a really interesting ride for me,” he says.
It’s a ride that appears to have only just started; and now he’s chasing outcomes he can count.
“While there’s awareness out there, while there’s less stigma, our stats are still going the wrong way. And that really upsets me. Especially in our young males. By the end of today a New Zealand male will be dead because of suicide. I can’t live with that.”
At 668, New Zealand’s suicide rate - the number of suicides per 100,000 population - is at its highest since provisional statistics were first recorded in the 2007/08 year. For four years it’s done nothing but increase.
Mental health issues affect a large and broad section of New Zealand. In the most recent New Zealand Health Survey, one in six adults (16%, or an estimated 582,000 adults) had been diagnosed with a common mental disorder at some time in their lives. And our young people are uniquely - and increasingly - affected.
A recent Ministry of Health report shows 11.8% of 15 to 24-year-old New Zealanders struggle with their mental health. This is a steady increase, up from 5% five years ago. The report estimates 79,000 young Kiwis experienced “psychological distress” in the past year - defined as “high or very high probability of anxiety or depressive disorder”. That’s up from 58,000 a year earlier. We also have the highest rates of suicide for people aged 15 to 19 in the OECD.
These stats exasperate Kirwan. He appears to take personal responsibility for each tragedy the numbers represent. Now he’s doing something about it.
“We should have one of the best suicide rates in the world. That’s my goal. Not the worst.”
In October he launched the JK Foundation, the next step in his mental health advocacy. Focused on young people, its purpose is to provide them with the skills to understand their mental health, empower them to talk about it, and create empathy for others who are experiencing distress.
“We need to teach kids the ABC of mental health. They’ll have more understanding if it happens to them, and they’ll have more empathy for someone who is suffering from it. We’ve got to come up with a solution where we teach all our young people that it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be angry, but your anger can’t end in violence,” he says.
The Foundation has received funding from the Joyce Fisher Charitable Trust, and Kirwan is starting to build a team of experts to design a series of programmes that can be introduced at schools. He wants mental health education to start as young as three, and continue throughout a young person’s development. And he wants its introduction into the education system to be without burdening schools: “because the schools have no resource either human or financial, so we can’t be adding to their pressure all the time”.
Despite receiving support and treatment for his own mental illness, Kirwan quickly discovered how little guidance there is around parenting for mental wellness. Communication has been the most important part of his relationship with his children, and they’re an obviously close family. Before lunch he was watching Luca row in a regatta on Lake Pupuke, later tonight his alarm will wake him up to watch eldest son Niko (23) play football for AC Mestre in Italy's third-tier professional league. He spends every day with Francesca selling their wine. Anxiety and depression can be hereditary; he’s constantly aware of the kids’ health and happiness.
“In our family we are very open about our feelings. We talk about our worries, anxieties, doubts etc a lot. The kids always come to me or my wife when they have worries about sports, work, school, relationships.
“I think a huge part of it has been doing things together as a family: eating, travelling, going out, watching sports. None of them have experienced mental illness for now, but we do try to stay on track in terms of how they are feeling and progressing in life.”
But he’s knows they’re lucky. He’s deeply concerned about the pressure young people are under, the fact it can be so hard for them to acknowledge vulnerability, and the effects of social media on their mental health. He believes these are key contributors to the growth in mental illness in young people.
“There is a lot more fear in the world. I don’t think it is easy to see the goal posts as much as it was in my day. I think the world is a lot scarier for the new generation and it’s a lot harder to cope with.”
He wants adults and young people to communicate better. He wants children to be taught to express their emotions, to cry, to be angry but to control that anger.
“Those things are really natural emotions and we just don’t get taught to deal with them at young age. We are told to suppress them.
“I don’t pretend I have all the answers but I want to keep looking for solutions rather than accepting the situation,” he says.
Sir John Kirwan is healthy. But it’s an ongoing challenge. It’s about constantly mastering his mental health, a task symbolised by the black dog that sits on the breast of the JK Foundation’s t-shirts. He wants all New Zealanders to wear his black dog on our chest, an acknowledgement that we all carry burdens, but if we recognise them, we can manage them and master them. For Kirwan this means being constantly aware of looking after himself, investing in himself, and taking time to himself.
“I stay well every single day. I look after my mental health every single day.”
He has a daily programme. It’s about appreciating his life as individual moments and enjoying each one. It starts with a shower.
“My shower is the greatest thing I ever do. The water on my back is like a massage. How many times do you get in the shower, and get out and get changed and you haven’t even felt the water?
“Then I have a coffee. I make myself a mocha and really sit down and enjoy that. It’s about stopping. I stop 10 times during the day. Mindfulness is staying in the present. The most important thing for your mental health is when you are doing something: stop and do it.”
He worries about the effects of social media and the permanent presence of our phones. During our lunch and photoshoot, he looks at his phone once - to check the surf report on the West Coast. I look at mine an alarming number of times - my emails, Slack, Instagram.
“It’s important to put your phone down. Ignore it for 10 minutes, the world is not going to fall over. I don’t think we are going to stop technology, I think there are a lot of good things in technology. But you just need to take a bit of control. Just be aware. Stay in the present.”
Cooking is a part of his wellness programme. When he cooks, all he thinks about is cooking. For that moment his world is just parsley and garlic. When he shares food it’s all about the meal and the people and that moment. It works.
“It’s about taking control. And it’s a challenge for all of us, including me.”