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Rugby World: Tahs sign 94-cap Wales centre, how Super Rugby rookies are facing challenges ahead of debut

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24th January, 2022
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Fijian Drua’s coach reveals the difficulties he’s faced preparing for their Super Rugby debut while the Waratahs have signed a 35-year-old capped 94 times by Wales. Welcome to Rugby World.

When Fijian Drua chose the man to lead their potentially perilous maiden voyage in Super Rugby it came as a surprise when they opted for a first-time head coach.

But the decision to give the gig to former Aussie Rules player and rugby skills coach Mick Byrne fits with the ethic of Fijian rugby – unconventional, innovative and out there.

Forty years ago Byrne fronted up Ron Barassi over a lack of playing time at Melbourne Demons and found himself run out of the club by the Aussie Rules legend. Byrne recovered, won a premiership with Hawthorn, and came fifth in the Brownlow Medal.
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In later life he’s had roles as a skills coach for Manly in NRL, and the Wallabies and All Blacks.

Needless to say any coach who walked into this job would have faced challenges. You wonder how much they might be amplified by taking on the role as numero uno for the first time.

For a start, some of his players have never been involved in a professional sports set up. Some have been stuck on the Fiji Islands for nine months without playing competitive rugby at all.

This is the 10th week they’ve spent together on the NSW north coast and Byrne, in a fascinating press conference late last week, outlined the process he’d been working through to get the team ready to face the big time.

“We spent a good amount of time before Christmas just getting each other’s thoughts around what was important for us and what we thought about the way we should behave and the way we’d like to be perceived by people – the cultural aspects of what we’re doing and sticking very closely to the culture,” said Byrne.

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“Then bringing that out onto the field and respecting each other’s growth through this and then, with our rugby, just being able to allow our players to find their own way into it.

“We set some ideas around how we want to play but then just allowing our players to feel comfortable in expressing themselves as we go through.

“It is a difficult task to bring a team of 39 individuals from all around the world, predominantly Fijian islands back in together. But what we’ve been able to do, because of the willingness of everyone to buy into what we’re doing is we’ve got into a pretty good place in a short period of time. It’s been difficult but it’s been great because of the energy that the players have brought into be part of it and create their own team.”

He said he has already seen some “enormous growth” from players as they embrace the experience and the increased loads in strength and conditioning work required for Super Rugby.

“What I’ve really been impressed with is the ability for our players to bounce back the next day,” Byrne said.

“A lot of these players haven’t been involved in full time professional programs. When you first come into a professional program, suddenly you’re in the second or third week and it’s like, ‘what we’re going in the next day?’

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“And every day our players have turned up, they were ready to go mentally, they’ve been switched on.”

Since the Christmas break Byrne has shifted to focus of game plans and the style they want to play – and expect them to honour the best traditions of Fijian rugby.

But with the thrills come inevitable spills.

“One of the key things is to make sure that those parts of the game that we desperately need to make sure we’ve got right, our exiting and those types of things, are good and we’re putting in place the way we want to do it,” said Byrne.

He said modern rugby was played 60 percent to expectations and 40 percent “off the cuff”.

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“I think we might have the 40 percent covered,” Byrne said. ” So we’ve got to look after the 60 percent and get that right, so our exits and our defence and our role clarity is really important.

“If we do happen to pick the ball up on turnover, or there’s an opportunity on counter, then, far be it for me to tell these guys how to play with that ball.

“I want to make sure that the players understand the times to do that and the times to just stick to what we need to do and look after the ball and respect the opposition.”

After being a hands on skills coach, Byrne is starting to adjust to the top job.

“The biggest thing for me is to ensure that I let the people around me have their growth and do their work as well,” he said. “Earlier on, in the first few weeks, it was just a matter of me allowing the coaches their room and working through that which I found a challenge.

“Like any challenge you accept it and grow with it. But on field the rugby stuff has been great. Off the field there’s a few more conversations you have that you don’t normally have in the roles I’ve been in.

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“I’m not shying away from and actually enjoying that part of it. That’s why I’ve always been enthusiastic around getting a head coaching role and to buy into that and have a bit more control over the environment we’re in and make better decisions. So I’m enjoying that part as well.”

His team comes into the competition as a genuine wildcard and he is unsure how they’ll be perceived early on.

It’s probably irrelevant anyway – it’s how they’re perceived as the results start mounting that matters most.

“We know we need to be fitter and stronger to play Super Rugby,” Byrne said.

“I’m hoping that there’s some questions unanswered when [other teams] start looking at us and how they feel about us.

“The biggest thing about that is is how we present ourselves and how we prepare ourselves. If we want people to be asking questions about us we have to step up and we have to perform and display the qualities that we go out to display first up.

“We’re going to really be focusing on making sure that we present ourselves in the best possible way when we get on the field over the next couple of weeks and then maybe we can start posing some questions to our opposition.”

Byrne’s team is almost complete and he unveiled Nemani Nagusa, as his captain. Nagusa has represented Fiji 18 times and led the Fijian 7s side, as well as having played in Europe.

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“We set about not wanting to look for qualities, we just thought that they would come out naturally,” Byrne said of his leadership hunt.

“And so we just waited and let the season unfold. A lot of the boys who had come off the islands hadn’t done much for eight or nine months So that was a big challenge.

“We’ve had an enormous turn around in our fitness levels and strength levels. To get there was hard work and your leaders will naturally stand up under those environments. So it was really a matter of seeing how everyone dealt with the adversity of what we did before Christmas and every time we turned around there was one guy out the front bringing the others with him and that was Nemani.”

Negusa said his favorite Super Rugby team had been the Crusaders, and Richie McCaw the man he wanted to model his leadership on.

“I just admire the way he plays and the way he leads his team,” Negusa said. “Every game he gives 100 percent every time and it’s something that has been my mantra.

“We have a rugby crazy nation back at home, and people love their rugby. For us to be here, they expect us to do well.

“There is pressure so for us it’s just focusing on our roles, doing the things we do well every day, prepare well, of course, and then let the results speak for themselves.”

Waratahs sign veteran Wales centre

The Waratahs have signed 35-year-old former Wales and Lions centre Jamie Roberts, whose pregnant partner is from Sydney, on a one-year injury coverage contract for this season.

Roberts played 94 times for Wales and three for the Lions, having debuted for his country in 2008, and played in the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and won the Six Nations three times.

It’s nine years since he scored the series clinching try for the Lions against Australia.

“I’m really excited to join the Waratahs,” Roberts said in a club statement.

Jamie Roberts playing for Wales in 2017of Wales celebrates as he scores their third try with George North during the Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium on March 10, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Jamie Roberts playing for Wales in 2017.(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

“The adventure of playing in a new competition in a different country outside my comfort zone excites me.

“As my Sydney-born partner is expecting our second child in March, we feel the best decision for our family is to be surrounded by her support network in Sydney.

“On the rugby front, I’m looking to hit the ground running, get up to speed quickly, perform on the pitch and help drive success.

“Hopefully I can impart some of my knowledge and insight to the talented youngsters on the team, keep improving as a player and keep developing as a person for what may come after.” 

The Waratahs have moved after losing Joey Walton to an ACL injury during the first block of pre-season in November, adding to an injury to Mosese Tuipulotu.

“To be able to bring in a player with the experience and talent that Jamie has on an injury coverage contract is huge for us,” said Tahs coach Darren Coleman.

“Jamie has been playing at a consistently high level with Dragons in Wales this season and adds a really big body for go forward and is very sound defensively. He adds vital depth in our midfield and
will complement the mix of players we currently have.

“Off the field he will also add a lot to the group and our team culture with his professionalism and
experience.”

Roarer’s festival of the boot

Roar contributor Andrew Fraser is the brains behind RugbyPalooza, an informal coach education event aimed at upskilling the community coaches whilst developing their networks too.

RugbyPalooza stemmed from a similar event a year ago at Lennox Head.

Last year, coaches from Bundaberg to Sydney and as far west as Cobar, made the journey and showed that there is an appetite for such information.

Fraser decided to commit to doing another event and is passionate about the concept. With the support of the Super Rugby franchises, there is some great coach talent presenting this year. Guest coaches include Scott Wisemantel, Jay Tregonning and Nick Stiles with practical units with Sam Needs and Damien Hill.

“Born from my own experiences as a country rugby coach who last year coached in the Shute Shield – I saw the value of collaboration and networks at that level and want to replicate the same across coaching landscape,” said Fraser.

“We aim for RugbyPalooza to be a festival of the game where we can show off the many great aspects of the code and allow a platform for new games, technologies and concepts to be shown.”

Anyone interested in attending the event should visit rugbypalooza.com.au and follow the links. Participants will get access to resources used by the guest presenters. On the Sunday afternoon, the Fijian Drua will play a trial game at Ballina after the event.

“We aim to have more similar events across country over the coming years,” added Fraser.

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