He’s been a skills coach to some of the best rugby players the game has ever seen but now Mick Byrne is fulfilling a lifetime goal to become a head coach, with start up Super Rugby Pacific team Drua. He talked to Jim Tucker about the challenge ahead.
Home will be the easiest part of the bold leap into the unknown for rookie head coach Mick Byrne and his Fijian Drua.
The Drua will be the nomads of Super Rugby Pacific. They will not play a game within 2000km of the tropical sun or fanatical crowd in Suva to spur them on.
That makes the warmth of their small-town base in Australia at the surfers’ mecca of Lennox Head all the more important for the next seven months.
For “Mick the Kick”, as Byrne’s often been tagged, this is the most searching examination of his coaching career in rugby after high profile stints with two World Cup-winning All Blacks sides and the Wallabies.
As a respected skills coach for both outfits, the wins and losses were always beside the head coach’s name. When Dan Carter potted six-from-six or found the turf with a low-drilling cross-field kick, the accolades flowed to him not the able kicking coach helping him find his groove at training fields worldwide.
He was really only accountable to invisible internal reviews.
This season, all the Ws and Ls, all the style points and the very success of this transformative moment for Fijian rugby will be marked against Byrne’s name.
Remarkably, this is the lanky two-metre tall Aussie’s first head coach role at 62. He beat more than 30 candidates for the job and wants to expand his own role to nurture young Fijians through age programs.
“It really excites me to do something for the first time and put a stamp on it. The coaching staff is into a space that has had very little development and we can go to town on it,” Byrne said with a buzz to his tone.
“Everything is here at Lennox Head. You walk from the gym straight onto the field. There’s a pool and you walk 20m down a bush track out the back gate to Seven Mile Beach for recovery.”
Even after nearly 25 years of rugby roles immersed in every part of the game, Byrne knows there will be boorish knockers out there before the first kick-off.
“Those voices will always be out there saying ‘what does he know, he’s an Aussie Rules guy?’,” Byrne shrugged from the Drua camp at Lennox Head.
“That’s fine. I’ve got the chance to run a program with a team that has wonderful possibilities. It’s something I believe I can do and show that I can by doing everything to make the Drua a success.”
The blinkered view of Byrne is borne of his own playing career, the 167 games in tight shorts in the VFL/AFL and the 1983 premiership he won with Hawthorn.
“I played rugby and rugby league from the age of six to 18. I grew up loving those games and it was the reason they drew me straight back in (through coaching) after my opportunity in professional footy with a different code,” Byrne explained.
Byrne has always had the knack of quiet persuasion to his coaching. He's a good talker and listener and has the genial disposition to gel with an all-Fijian team.
He doesn’t want to rush into conversations about the Drua’s tough opening game against the Blues at Eden Park on February 19.
“I’m staying in the excitement stage for now. I’m embracing the opportunity we’ve all been given to get to know each other,” Byrne said.
“This is all brand new...new players, new coaches and a great set-up at Lennox Head that couldn’t be better if it was purpose-built.
“Behind the scenes, we live in the real world as coaches and we know how hard Super Rugby is. It keeps coming at you week after week so, yes, we’re preparing for that.”
Former Test referee Glen Jackson, tapping all he learnt at the Chiefs and Saracens as a player, is assistant coach alongside Brad Harris, the Aussie on staff with Fiji’s sevens heroes at the Tokyo Olympics.
Brian Thorburn, the Interim Chief Executive of the Drua, said Byrne had all the credentials to pull the new team together.
"He's been at the coalface with tremendous teams and brought skills to the fore. He has a clear plan but also the attitude for a massive challenge," Thorburn said.
Byrne worked with Fijian stars Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu during his time with the All Blacks and Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete at the Wallabies.
He has been exposed to the Fijian mindset for long enough to understand things that are more important than throwing a freakish one-handed pass.
“The biggest thing is creating a safe, learning, team environment where everyone can have a say,” Byrne said.
“These guys have been playing rugby since they were little kids on the islands. They have some really good ideas but a lot of knowledge gets missed because English is their second language. We’ll have a way to express those ideas."
The strong cultural and spiritual element that will bind the side will always be fanned by Nacanieli Cawanibuka, the Head of Athletic Performance who featured in that role for Fiji’s gold medal-winning sevens teams at the Rio and Tokyo Olympics.
Some of those dynamic Tokyo gold medallists like Ratu Meli Derenalagi, Kalione Nasoko and Napolioni Bolaca have been signed by the Drua. Players have returned from New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Europe to be part of this.
The birth of the Drua still came after a raft of top Fijians based in Europe and Japan had to decide on their 2021-22 contract plans. The team will be stronger again in 2023 when experienced players abroad decide to finish their careers at home.
It’s not unkind to say that a Drua team, with little Super Rugby experience, will be tipped for last or second last by most sports bookies.
How do the Drua pick off wins and reach some of those sparkling periods of play that the Flying Fijians produced against the All Blacks in Dunedin and when they recently gave Wales a scare in Cardiff?
“Look at the best Fijian sevens sides. They got fitter and more disciplined in defence and became harder to score against,” Byrne said.
“We can get fitter and stronger, work on the technical side and be more clinical in the way we go about things without inhibiting the flair we play with.”
The Flying Fijians muster a week before a Test. The Drua will have months together so the potential pay-off longer term is tantalising.
It’s the showcase this wonderful nursery of rugby talent has always needed in professional rugby.
The code’s amateur chiefs knew it. When the South Pacific Championship ran from 1985-90, the Fijians were an integral member beside Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington, Queensland and NSW.
When Super Six was launched in 1992, the Fijians thrashed Canterbury 38-17 on one glorious day in Suva. That is where the Drua dream would love to return to one day.
“Obviously, preparing players for the national team is a big part of this just as New Zealand’s five Super Rugby sides are doing the same for the All Blacks,” Byrne said.
“We’ll have players getting experience against Australian opponents, week in, week out, before Fiji play the Wallabies at the 2023 World Cup in France.
“We’ll bring on younger players who will finally see there is a direct path from playing touch on the beach to a potential professional career in their own country and representing Fiji.
“All the aspects are exciting and we are going to keep the joy in all of this too.”
Byrne is not one for predictions but the eight-team play-offs in the new Super Rugby Pacific competition have given the Drua a target.
“Making five-team finals in our first year might have been a bit difficult but I give us a realistic chance at a top eight. We’ll be having a real crack,” he said.
As for the natural demolition derby against Moana Pasifika, Bryne is thrilled for all rugby lovers in the Pacific.
“Players from the three great rugby nations of the Pacific coming together...and I’m guessing there are going to be some good hits in that one.”
Byrne has already improved one skill...his own singing if only as a quiet backing vocalist in the choir.
“Most days we are on the beach. The boys will come together with a song and they sing that well that even I sound better,” he said.