Wallabies assistant coach Mick Byrne says the skill levels of Australian players are now as good as the All Blacks on the training paddock - but the challenge is to deliver during games as well.
While Byrne’s comments may mobilise an army of Kiwi trolls, they’ll be taken differently inside the All Blacks’ coaches room given the unique trans-Tasman insight of the man they know as “Mick the Kick”.
Prior to joining the Wallabies in 2016, Byrne was one of the key architects for the current global dominance of New Zealand rugby.
The lanky former AFL player joined the All Blacks coaching staff in 2005 and introduced skills development programs that were instrumental in the Kiwis winning back-to-back World Cups in 2011 and 2015.
After returning to Australia to work with Rod Kafer in business, Byrne was recruited by Rugby Australia to lift the skills of all players in his home country - from the Wallabies, through to Super Rugby teams and junior age teams.
Byrne said in the week after the opening Bledisloe Cup loss last year that his experience with the All Blacks showed him a corner could be turned very quickly with skills, and the Wallabies bounced back to be competitive in the second two games against the Kiwis.
But after another season of Australian Super teams training with his drills and programs, Byrne has been hugely pleased with oft-sighted evidence of much-improved skills this year, particularly with the passing displayed by forwards.
“I think we’ve made good progress through the Super Rugby. The collaboration through the Super Rugby environment has been great,” Byrne said.
“Just the focus around getting some of the core skills done has been really pleasing support from the Super Rugby environment and I think that our players certainly we’re seeing a lot of good stuff on the training track.
“We know that that doesn’t necessarily equate to the field but we’ve been getting good transference through our work at training, players are working really hard so I envisage that we’ll be in better shape than we were last year as far as that goes.”
Asked if the skills of Wallabies players were now on par with the All Blacks, Byrne replied: “I think they are.”
“On the training track we’ve shown that, now we just have to build the confidence and belief within themselves to come out and present that during the game.”
Byrne said the key to transferring training park skills onto the field during games was the belief gained through consistency and success.
“If anyone has ever had a lesson of some sort, whether it be golf or tennis, the first time you go out onto the golf course and start trying new golf swings it’s always a bit uncomfortable,” Byrne said.
“Then you get comfortable with it and get confident. Our guys certainly have the skill level, and the confidence, they’ve displayed it over the year.
“During the June series they got more confidence and belief in what they’re doing and our boys are in a good position to push on.
“We’re in great shape with that, we’ve progressed really well, each individual player obviously will look to get better.”
Byrne also believes the Wallabies won’t be found lacking in the fitness department, after Super Rugby sides also collaborated with Cheika’s staff on conditioning programs and desired outcomes.
Last year Cheika was so unhappy with the fitness levels of Wallabies players he spent most of June and in pre-Bledisloe camps doing pre-season-style work.
“I think it’s the best shape coming out of Super Rugby, yeah, for sure. When I say shape, I talk about the conditioning, I know last year there was a lot made of the conditioning we had to do in our camp,” Byrne said.
“It was great to go into our camp this year and be really focused on the way we want to play the game and all the work you want to get done. Playing that game on Friday you saw the shape the boys were in, so I would say we’re in better physical shape than we were this time last year.”
Byrne, who is good mates with Steve Hansen, could only laugh when asked about the All Blacks coach bestowing the tag of favourite on the Wallabies.
“Steve’s always had a great sense of humour and I really appreciate his humour,” Byrne said.
The Wallabies host the All Blacks in the first Bledisoe on Saturday August 18, kicking off at 7.45pm AEST, LIVE on FOX SPORTS and via RUGBY.com.au RADIO, with the Wallaroos taking on the Black Ferns from 5:15pm AEST as well. Buy tickets here.