Mick Byrne made his name as an innovator. After a playing career in Australian rules football, he pioneered the role of the rugby skills coach in England and Scotland, going on to work with the All Blacks for over a decade.

In 2021, Byrne landed his first Super Rugby head coaching role when he was appointed to the job with the Fijian Drua in their inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season. Byrne led the Drua to a quarter-final loss against eventual champions the Crusaders, and their exciting brand of rugby captivated the competition. The club is supplying 18 members of the Fiji World Cup squad.

Byrne worked as the Wallabies’ skills coach in the 2019 World Cup and remembers facing Fiji in the pool stages in Japan. He believes Australia will have a different mindset when they meet again in France.

“I’m pretty sure the Wallabies boys will be ready for the Fiji boys, maybe more so than they have been in the past because they’ve experienced playing against them at the Drua. We were fortunate enough to win a couple of games against Australian teams and they have experienced the physicality that the Fijian boys bring to the game.

“In 2019, the preparation for the week was awesome. I wouldn’t say they [Australia] were relaxed or cocky or overconfident but there wasn’t the edge in the camp like when they played say South Africa or New Zealand. This time I think in the Fijian changing room there’s going to be a belief that if we get it right, we can win this (against Australia). I think that will create a real edge to the Fijian mindset going into the test match.”

Byrne wasn’t shocked when Fiji defeated England recently, and believes that the progress of the Drua has given the national team stability in key positions that enables them to perform better than ever.

“There’s a real instinctive edge around the way the Fijians play anyway, but now you have settled combinations especially at nine, ten and fullback for the Flying Fijians all from the Drua,” he said. “There’s a real connection there. You also had the two locks working together against England.

“This might be the team that they start against Wales, but it certainly helps if you’re going into battle and you’ve been alongside a guy all year. There’s a comfort and a confidence there.”

For the first time, the Drua have enabled full-time professional rugby players in Fiji to train and play near their families. Their home stadium at Churchill Park in the city of Lautoka is regularly sold out and has one of the best atmospheres in world rugby. Byrne lives in the nearby town of Nasoso, and regularly watches local children playing frenetic games of touch football on the beach.

Byrne loves life in Fiji and has been warmly welcomed by the local people. He confesses to feeling stressed only when the Drua lose, but is still told well done by his rugby-mad neighbours. He is looking forward to the energy the World Cup will bring to the country.

“If you turn your volume down on the TV and walk out on the balcony, you can always tell when Fiji are about to score during a Test match. The noise around the town is huge and you can hear people in their lounge rooms screaming with everyone is up in the middle of the night. My neighbours will have around 10 or 12 people sitting around the TV screen watching all the [Fiji] Test matches, so I’m really looking forward to that sort of energy over the next few weeks.”

Byrne grew up in Manly with parents who instilled in him the need to work hard. Their example helped him succeed as a player in the then VFL, winning a premiership with Hawthorn, before making his name as a skills coach in rugby. He has been impressed by the tenacity of the country’s elite players against the odds.

“Your players here don’t complain, they just turn up and get on with it. Some of the states of the fields you train on, players in Australia or New Zealand would nearly refuse to train on them. Here they just get on with it, that’s the way it is. It’s a real privilege to coach here.”

Byrne is in regular contact with the national team coaches and has been told that the team that has travelled to France is an extremely happy one, which makes them an even more dangerous prospect for the Wallabies.

“This group of Flying Fijians have melded together better than any other team in the past. There’s always been a bit of a gap between the on-island players and those that play in say France and England. There tends to be, not a them-and-us-thing, that’s not fair to say, but a little bit of a gap. And what I’m hearing is there’s no gap this year and there’s a real unity amongst the team that’s quite powerful and augurs well for the World Cup.”