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Ex-Leinster skills coach 'Mick the Kick' back in ancestral home with Wallabies

The former Australia Rules player has major experience in rugby coaching.

MICK THE KICK, they call him.

Michael Byrne has forged a reputation as perhaps the finest skills coach in the world of rugby over the course of a career that has seen him work with the Wallabies, All Blacks, Springboks, Scotland, Japan, Leinster, the Blues and the Brumbies.

The 57-year-old was skills coach to the All Blacks from 2005 until 2015, helping them to back-to-back World Cup successes, before opting to return home to Australia this year.

Skills coach Mick Byrne with head coach Michael Chieka Byrne with Michael Chieka at the RDS on Tuesday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Michael Cheika and the Wallabies brought him into their set-up as skills coach as soon as they possibly could, while Byrne will also begin his role as the Australian Rugby Union’s national skills coach following the current European tour.

Already, the signs of Byrne’s work with the Wallabies have been clear, with their kicking game improving and their forwards tipping on sharp passes under pressure from the defence.

“When you come in and ask them to change a little bit of their technique, it can be a bit daunting, especially when you come in during Test matches,” says Byrne.

“But every single player has had a go, has worked hard to make those little changes to tweak their technique. I really believe that professional players really enjoy the challenge of learning new things, and trying to achieve new things.

That’s been the most pleasing thing, the attitude to adopt the changes.”

Byrne is an innovator with a reputation for thinking outside the box when it comes to his skills coaching. The fact that the Sydney native is a former Australian Rules player perhaps explains his ability to do things a little differently.

His superb kicking ability – and the skills to coach it – proved to be highly attractive in rugby and after beginning with roles with Manly and other club sides in Australia, as well as in England, he eventually got brought on board by Ian McGeechan’s Scotland in 2002.

It just so happened that Matt Williams – another Sydney man – was head coach of Leinster at the time, and he convinced Byrne to also work with the Irish province.

“I came and did one day a week at Leinster for a year when Matt was here,” says Byrne as the Wallabies prepare to face Ireland on Saturday. “I got to know a few of the Irish boys and I’ve got a lot of good, fond memories of this part of the world.”

Mick Byrne Byrne is back in Dublin with the Wallabies. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

As the name strongly suggests, Byrne has Irish ancestry, although he jokes that the links are some distance in the past.

“It doesn’t say a lot about our family I suppose, one of the first out there [in Australia]!

“After many years of my family being away, I’ve come back home. I really enjoy this part of the world, I enjoy the people and I certainly enjoy the rugby.”

Byrne’s involvement with Leinster came in the 2002/03 season, with the likes of Keith Gleeson, Victor Costello, Malcolm O’Kelly, Shane Byrne, Reggie Corrigan, Girvan Dempsey, Leo Cullen, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy in the squad.

“It was very tight, they certainly enjoyed their rugby, went out and expressed themselves,” recalls Byrne. “They had a great backline, the forward pack worked really hard.

“They were unfortunate that year, they got beat by Perpignan [in the Heineken Cup semi-finals], but all those young players, you knew they were destined to have success eventually, because the province and Leinster and all the people around the club were so passionate about rugby.”

Williams moved on to the Scotland job in 2003, where Byrne remained on as skills coach alongside his friend.

Having already worked with the Wallabies and Springboks before his stint in Europe, Byrne subsequently moved into the New Zealand system in 2005, with his role as skills coach proving vital in the successes that followed.

In July of this year, the ARU announced their coup and Byrne has already made an impact on the Wallabies set-up.

While the Rugby Championship was a tough time for Michael Chieka’s group, this end-of-year tour has seen them notch wins over Wales, Scotland and France.

Across Europe, the Tests in recent weeks have largely made for compelling viewing, particularly with Italy beating South Africa, Ireland downing the All Blacks and Japan running Wales extremely close.

Mick Byrne Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Byrne can see the gap in skill closing between the best in the world.

“I’m seeing the top end of the game improving,” says Byrne. “When we look back over 2006, 2007, 2008, and you look at the amount of passes the forward packs made in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand were way out in front and in the Northern Hemisphere, Wales were way out in front.

“And now that disparity is closing, so you can see a lot more rugby being played by the forwards, which improves the skill level of the team and creates more options.

“The top sides are certainly embracing a 15-man game; we’re seeing the top sides in the world playing good rugby and scoring good tries. I think it’s closing between the top sides.”

While previously Byrne’s skills work with players might have involved only a bag of balls and his eyes, the advancement of technology means that his job now encapsulates deep video analysis on body movement and the study of data science.

The highly-experienced Wallabies skills specialist also points out that the various departments within rugby set-ups are increasingly joined-up, creating a different kind of rugby player.

“The role hasn’t changed greatly but the opportunities to help players have,” says Byrne.

“Over the last 10 years, the willingness and openness of the strength and conditioning coaches to embrace the functionality of rugby in their programmes has probably been the biggest gain.

“There was a time there about 10 or so years ago where the gym was a silo and players got really big and strong, but we weren’t seeing that transfer to the rugby field.

“Now there’s a lot of S&C coaches that are working closely with the rugby programme in managing not only player load but also the functionality of their players.

Mick Byrne Byrne has worked all over the world. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“What they’re doing in the gym, we’re seeing being transferred out on the field and they’ve embraced that component and I think it’s been great for the players.”

As for Byrne’s work out on the training pitch with the Wallabies, he insists that there are no real secrets.

The Wallabies forwards’ handling appears to be improving rather rapidly under Byrne, and he says that is simply because Chieka and his coaches are backing the big lumps to use their skills in this manner.

“I think you’ll see the hands improve more in the forwards because they are handling the ball more than they usually do.

“But also in the backs you’ll see the running lines and other areas, just sharper running lines when we can.

“It sounds like basic stuff but in all sports when you’re working on individual players you can improve technique, and that’s what we’re trying to work on.”

The Wallabies will look to end this tour with a fourth victory in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, but that won’t signal the end of the work for Byrne.

He will return home to Australia and begin preparations for involvement in the Super Rugby sides’ pre-season programmes. His job as national skills coach entails working across the country to bring Australian rugby’s skill levels up.

“It’s always a work-on,” says Byrne. “Sometimes, coaches come into a programme, especially young coaches, and they’re quite comfortable and they’re good but they just don’t have the time.

“It’s a dedicated role. If a backs coach is also going to double up in the skills area, he’s got a lot of players to work with, plus he’s got to manage his opposition, manage his team’s structures.

“Just having a dedicated person in the programme who is trying to help individual players will assist and complement the role of the coaches.

Michael Chieka Chieka's Wallabies aren't the only ones who will benefit from Byrne's expertise. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“That’s the key message when you go around the country; to have a dedicated eye on the skills side of things to assist all the coaches in the development of players.

“I’m going to be starting that when I get back from this tour and I’m really looking forward to meeting all the coaches and players and working hard in that area.”

But first, helping the Wallabies to a clean sweep on their tour. Byrne is, of course, familiar with Joe Schmidt from the latter’s days with Bay of Plenty and the Blues.

He recalls “a thorough, very technically-minded coach.”

“He had a passion for making sure every individual player in his squad was getting better,” says Byrne.

“So any player that is going to be coached by Joe is going to get that experience and certainly not die wondering how they can get better. He’s getting the rewards he deserves on the field and I’m looking forward to catching up with him after the game.”

And while Byrne obviously still has close ties to the All Blacks group, he took pleasure in seeing Ireland finally get one over on the Kiwis in Chicago at the start of the month.

“I was here when they nearly beat the All Blacks a couple of years ago so it’s been coming,” says Byrne. “That was an itch for Ireland that needed to be scratched, and they scratched it pretty well.

“I know how disappointed they were a couple of years ago when Aaron Cruden converted a try in time-on; they did really that day.

“Under Joe they’re playing a really great brand of rugby, they’re challenging every team they play, you’ve got to make your tackles against them. They work very hard.

“I think it was great for Irish rugby and for Joe, because I called Joe after that game a couple of years ago and he was a devastated man. I’m glad he’s been able to get that monkey off his back.

“Hopefully he’s had his big success for the year!”

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Murray Kinsella

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