Can Mick Byrne and Brad Thorn kick-start the Wallabies?

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By , Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert

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    I will always remember the look on Martin Johnson’s face. It was the press conference after England’s ignominious exit from the 2011 World Cup.

    Being the deeply honourable man that he is, Johnno took full responsibility for England’s failure and fell on his own sword.

    He did not blame anyone else and he tried to sound upbeat about his experience as England manager over three and a half years, but his eyes told a different story. The light in them had gone out.

    Meanwhile, the ‘suits’ in the RFU hierarchy washed their hands of the debacle and faded seamlessly into an ever-grey background. Johnno was left to carry the can alone.

    But Martin Johnson’s ultimate failure was not one of his own making, it was a failure of vision by those very administrators who did not hold themselves accountable.

    They appointed England’s best-ever captain as a head coach without constructing the essential support system he needed around him.

    It is a huge step to move from a successful playing career to one where you are observing, teaching and organising. It may be the same sport, but the habits to be learned are very, very different.

    I hope sincerely that Martin Johnson’s fate does not await Brad Thorn. Thorn, like Johnno, played in the second row and was one of his country’s greatest-ever servants in that position.

    When Graham Henry was appointed as New Zealand’s head coach back in 2004 (after another painful inquest at the 2003 World Cup) he concentrated on development in two basic areas of his new All Black team – leadership and tight forward play.

    Mike Cron was brought back from Wales to spread his scrum gospel across the provinces, and Sir Graham found two tight forwards around whom he could build his foundations in Carl Hayman (immediately) and Thorn (on his second tour of duty in Union from 2008 onwards).

    Both Hayman and Thorn were granite-hard competitors of the type New Zealand had lacked in the late nineties and early 2000’s.

    Between them, Hayman and Thorn locked up the right side of the New Zealand scrum for years – ask Ireland’s Mike Ross and he will tell you all about Thorn’s value as a tight-head scrummager.

    Hayman ruled the set-piece and Thorn ruled the breakdown, and that gave the All Blacks a physical, aggressive base from which they could truly expand their game.

    This photo taken on July 31, 2010 shows New Zealand All Black lock Brad Thorn (top) crashing through the tackle of Australian Wallaby winger James O'Connor (bottom) in their Tr-Nations and Bledisoe Cup rugby union Test match, in Melbourne.

    Brad Thorn – possibly the best dual code player in history.

    They have been expanding ever since, and their very rare failures have tended to coincide with moments when the base has temporarily been forgotten – such as the selection of Jerome Kaino in the second row against Ireland in Chicago last year.

    As the new top man at the Queensland Reds, Thorn like Johnson before him is stepping into the great unknown, an abyss from which the celebrated success of his playing career will not save him if he cannot prove he can win.

    Unlike Johnson, he has some support upon which he can rely to provide guidance – an experienced head coach in his own right in Tony McGahan already within the Reds’ coaching team, and a mentor from further back in his League days with the Brisbane Broncos, Wayne Bennett.

    Thorn certainly has the right attitude to the process that is about to unfold:

    “Taking advice is crucial because I know there are massive gaps [in my knowledge]…Sometimes coaches will block that out. When I meet people who know more about things than me, I love being around them to learn.”

    Undoubtedly, Thorn will bring good on and off-field habits to the Reds from the winning cultures with which he has been involved as a player, and he will bring a hardness and discipline to their play from the philosophical base of strong set-pieces, and increased work-rate in defence and at the breakdown.

    The Reds fell down in all these areas in 2017, but should be capable of very significant improvement with 14 capped Wallabies in their ranks, other fringe national candidates like Andrew Ready, Taniela Tupou, Adam Korczyk and Izaia Perese, and a solid leadership core composed of Stephen Moore, James Slipper, Scott Higginbotham, George Smith, Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt.

    Should things go well in 2018, I believe that for Brad Thorn, Queensland will be just a staging post en route to the Wallabies’ coaching staff. He may even end up at its pinnacle.

    While New Zealand are constantly strengthening their grip on the rest of the Southern Hemisphere on the field, off it their coaches are providing the main hope for catch-up.

    The other primary coach with All Black experience working in Australia is, of course, Mick Byrne. Byrne is already part of a national coaching think-tank with Michael Cheika, Bob Dwyer and Dick Marks, and he has been co-ordinating coaching efforts at the national level with those on the Super Rugby rung below it.

    I have previously detected signs of Byrne’s influence in the angles of running and footwork in Australia’s forward pod play, and the new offloading emphasis in the outside channels, but of course ‘Mick the Kick’ started as a kicking-and-catching coach based on his experience in the AFL.

    He has been trying to find new ways to make of Israel Folau’s outstanding aerial ability, showcased in his spectacular Aussie Rules style leap for the score from a crosskick against Scotland in June

    The simplest method of achieving that aim is to have Folau chase contestable Wallaby kick-offs of the kind New Zealand have perfected, with any of Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett delivering a flat chip just over the opposition 10m line for Kieran Read to chase with his patented ‘bull-rush’.

    I previously discussed the more controversial aspects of Read’s technique in my article about the third Lions Test in June here.

    Although there is always the danger of committing a ‘charging foul’ when the take-off zone is so far away from the actual point-of-contact with an opponent in the air, Read timed it to perfection to effectively bring New Zealand back from the dead against the Wallabies in Dunedin:

    In the 77th minute, it is replacement #10 Lima Sopoaga who suddenly switches the direction of the restart for Read to chase. Read’s take-off point is at least three metres away from the Wallaby receiver, substitute second-row Izack Rodda at 77:02.

    Although it is Read who gets the first touch, it is really his momentum through contact in the air that ensures Rodda (and Israel Folau) knock it on in the follow-up. This is clear from the slow-motion replay after the All Blacks use the turnover to score their match-winning try.

    Byrne has been introducing the same flat, contestable switch KO for the Wallabies.

    These two examples both come from the first match in Sydney, and feature Bernard Foley delivering the flat restart with Folau chasing in the wide 15m channel out to the right. On both occasions, Folau does not take the ball cleanly, but his ‘charge’ does enough to upset the receiver (New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock) so that he cannot control the ball and Australia regain possession. It is a policy straight out of the All Blacks playbook!

    Byrne has also been varying the receiver and the direction of the kick, with either Reece Hodge or Rob Simmons using the same charging technique to reclaim the ball on the other side of the field – here from the second match against South Africa:

    When it works, the change in momentum can be quick enough to create a cheap score a few phases later:

    In the 26th minute, Folau chases the flat KO from Foley and wins the ball cleanly over Springbok wing Courtnall Skosan. That sets up Adam Coleman on a burst which takes him all the way into the heart of the South African 22, and Kurtley Beale applies the finishing touch against an unstructured defence on the very next phase.

    For better or for worse, Australia has entrusted a large portion of their international future to All Black coaches.

    They have already committed to Mick Byrne, whose influence has spread well beyond his starting remit as kicking coach to include the creation and use of turnover ball and handling and running skills among the forwards, and a key role in developing Australian coaching below Test level.

    I also suspect that Brad Thorn may have an important role to play for the Wallabies if success comes early in his reign at the Reds.

    In order to achieve that success he will have to sidestep the scenario that befell another outstanding ex-player with little or no coaching experience in Martin Johnson.

    Both Byrne and Thorn have the pedigree from their association with New Zealand in one of its ‘golden periods’ from 2007 onwards.

    The only question is: when Thorn and Byrne have taught all they have to teach to Australia, will New Zealand rugby have already moved on to another level yet again?

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.