Sunday 18 February 2018

Aussie skills guru 'Mick the Kick' believes gap between north and south has narrowed

Former Leinster and All Blacks skills coach wary of Schmidt's men

Australia skills coach Mick Byrne:
Australia skills coach Mick Byrne: "I’m seeing the top end of the game improving." Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Despite a lifetime spent travelling the world coaching rugby, Mick Byrne's accent remains firmly Australian.

His name, however, speaks to his Irish heritage. His family's date of arrival Down Under, however, suggests something else.

"It's a good distance back," the Wallabies skills guru says with a wry smile. "It doesn't say a lot about our family I suppose, one of the first out there."

A century on, this son of the soil is holding court in the five-star city hotel Michael Cheika's team are calling home this week as his work with the Australians bears fruit and they look to complete a Grand Slam tour against Ireland and England.

Byrne is on familiar ground. In 2002/'03, Matt Williams brought him in from Scotland for a day a week to work on the Leinster players' skill-sets and he spoke warmly of the experience. On Saturday, he'll go up against a familiar face.

"Leinster had a great backline, the forward pack worked really hard," he recalled of his time with the province. "They were unfortunate that year, they got beat by Perpignan, but all those young players, you knew they were destined to have success eventually because the province and all the people around the club were so passionate about rugby. I know Joe (Schmidt) from his Bay of Plenty days and at the Auckland Blues, and right back then he was a thorough coach, very technically-minded coach.

"He had a passion for making sure every individual player in his squad was getting better. So any player being coached by Joe is going to get that experience and certainly won't 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. Hopefully he's had his big success for the year."

That success in Chicago was one that didn't surprise Byrne given his involvement with the New Zealand coaching team in 2013.

"It's been coming," he said. "That was an itch for Ireland that needed to be scratched and they scratched it pretty well.

"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. It was great for Irish rugby and for Joe. I spoke to him 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.

"Certainly they bring that element of physicality that we've got to be ready for but they do bring a great mix of skill-sets.

"They turned the All Blacks around a lot last week with their kicking game, we have to be mindful of that.

"They attack with real excitement to get across the line so we're going to have to be on song with them physically, but also match them in that area."

Ireland are the only remaining team from rugby's top nine that Australia haven't faced so far in a gruelling 2016 schedule, meaning they are better placed than anyone to assess the standards a year on from a World Cup that left most presuming there is a major divide between the northern and southern hemispheres.

In terms of skill-sets, Byrne doesn't see a major disparity.

"I'm seeing the top end of the game improving," he said. "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."

Irish Independent

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