Wallabies skills guru Mick Byrne believes there is plenty rugby nations across the world can learn from the AFL when it comes to ball-handling and spatial awareness.
A former ruckman for Melbourne, Hawthorn and Sydney, Byrne is on a mission to upskill Australian players after joining the Wallabies set-up as a specialist coach in July.
He spent 11 years as a skills coach for the All Blacks, and is credited with turning New Zealand’s forwards from one-dimensional battering rams into the silky-smooth ballrunners and manic offloaders who have changed the face of Test rugby in recent years.
Byrne has been given plenty of latitude by coach Michael Cheika to structure Wallaby training sessions and his influence has been clear during the team’s preparations for Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash against South Africa.
Players have been put through their paces with a number of new training exercises, some of which are inspired by AFL-style handball drills, with an emphasis on close-range passing and catching under pressure.
Some have struggled to adapt immediately but Byrne says they are enjoying a change he insists will benefit them in the long run.
“There is an influence around all the different codes and the AFL handling, spatial awareness, moving the ball quickly through the hands is an element we can get better at,” Byrne said in Johannesburg.
“(That’s) as rugby people, not just in Australia but all round the world, the ability to handle the ball under pressure and move it on.
“We don’t get a chance to do that in a rugby training session because it’s a fairly physical game, whereas the AFL is a more skilful game in that regard.
“There’s a few activities you can do that help the players with their catch-pass and catch-release.”
Byrne, who played 167 games in the old Victorian Football League, concedes it will take time for his methods to have an impact on Australian rugby.
“You’re changing players’ habits and you have to do it in a subtle way – you can’t have players going out on the field during Test matches thinking about how am I supposed to do this, or how am I supposed to do that,” he said.
“I know there’s a lot of debate around the top end of the game – do players at this level need skills coaches?
“Well, Rory McIlroy has a swing coach, and he does a pretty good job, so I think it’s important even at the top end that we work really hard at the top end at maintaining the players’ ability to get better.”