Today Mick Byrne may be the man tasked with making Fiji the next world rugby powerhouse, but almost four decades ago his sporting journey was at a crossroads.
Unhappy with a lack of playing time with VFL club the Melbourne Demons, and urged on by his teammates, Byrne — then no more than a promising 23-year-old ruckman — marched into the office of legendary coach Ron Barassi and gave him his mind.
“He was very successful in what he did but it wasn’t working with some of our young guys, and it certainly wasn’t working with me,” Byrne said.
“I remember beforehand my teammates saying ‘let him know this’ — they were all into me — so when I went into that meeting I felt like I had half a dozen guys with me, I was all fired up to present their case as well.”
Merely weeks into the 1982 season, as Byrne was trying to establish himself in the VFL as an outsider from north of the Murray, the meeting didn’t quite go to plan.
“I went in there, and didn’t start off too well. I was really frustrated, and I got to a point where I wasn’t leaving that meeting until I said what I wanted to say,” he said.
Ron Barassi listened, then acted. Within hours Byrne was out of the club. He was ushered into a car with the Demons chief executive, and was driven to a meeting with people he didn’t recognise. The man who turned out to be Hawthorn’s president Ron Cook offered him a contract to switch clubs immediately.
But Byrne had already shown a propensity to adapt.
Growing up in Sydney’s northern suburbs, he had mostly played rugby league before deciding to switch to Aussie rules midway through his teens.
As he prepared to tell his parents one night at the dinner table Byrne was full of anxiety.
“I was sitting there fretting all through dinner; how was I going to tell them I don’t want to play league any more?” he said.
“I mentioned it to my parents and my mum went and got a big box of memorabilia and opened it up and it was all my dad’s Australian rules career. I knew he’d played some Aussie rules, but I really wasn’t sure.
“I found out he played for New South Wales, he captain-coached North Shore to a premiership — he was basically a legend of the game in Sydney.
Drafted by the Demons, Byrne kicked 41 goals across his first five seasons, but it was his outburst to Barassi that took his VFL career to new heights.
In his first game with the Hawks, Byrne kicked eight goals against Footscray, the following season Byrne was a premiership winner, and the year after that he finished fifth in Brownlow voting ahead of superstar teammate Robert DiPierdomenico.
From the ‘G to Fiji
If Barassi’s approach hadn’t worked on Byrne, Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans made an immediate impact that has shaped both his playing and coaching career.
“I still remember the first conversation I had with him,” Byrne said.
“It was the first time I felt relaxed in Melbourne, I always felt like I was a bit of an outcast when I got down there.”
“He said to me, ‘you don’t need to prove anything to us, you don’t need to prove Melbourne wrong, you don’t need to prove us right, you just need to prove to yourself you can play this game’.”
Byrne succeeded as a northerner in the VFL, ending his career with the Swans in the late 1980s before drawing on this confidence as he switched codes again.
“When you move sport, you just move on and you’ve got to earn your credibility,” he said.
Byrne transitioned into coaching, across Aussie rules, Manly in the New South Wales Rugby League and eventually into rugby union where his kicking know-how became invaluable.
Over more than two decades, Byrne has worked for the All Blacks and the Wallabies, in Europe, Canada and Japan.
But in September he was handed his biggest responsibility yet.
Alongside Moana Pasifika, the Fijian Drua will compete in Super Rugby in a revamped Pacific-focused competition next year.
Logistical challenges mean the Drua will play their matches in Australia, and be based in Lennox Head on the New South Wales North Coast.
While a Fijian Drua side had previously competed in Australia’s now defunct National Rugby Championship — even winning the competition in 2018 — their addition to Super Rugby is a radical move to enhance opportunities for Pacific players in the professional game.
It’s also a significant responsibility for Byrne, who has worked for years as a skills coach and is now in charge of the team backed not only by Fiji’s people and government but the entire Fijian diaspora.
“It’s probably understated to say it’s important,” he said.
Eight of the 12 Super Rugby teams will qualify for the finals next season, giving Byrne hope his team can make an immediate impact. But he knows only success will allow the Drua to achieve their potential and reverse the talent drain away from Fiji.
“Hundreds of Pacific Island players were playing in the last World Cup, and not just with Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, but with all other nations,” Byrne said.
“For Fijians to have their own team in a world-class competition like Super Rugby is massive because in the past these young players have had to grow up and they’ve had to seek their careers overseas and elsewhere.
“They leave their families at a young age, they venture out into the world and they make a career for themselves, and they do it very, very well.
“But to have their own team, to be able to base themselves at home, is unbelievable for them.”
The Drua are committed to fielding an all-Fijian side in Super Rugby, though Byrne said they may need to call in international reinforcements in key positions.
The team has already signed 34 players including rugby sevens star and Tokyo gold medal winner Kalione Nasoko.
And Byrne’s commitment to Fijian talent extends to the coaching ranks, with work underway with Fijian Rugby Union’s head of high performance, Simon Raiwalui, on a local program.
“When the Drua are finished we will get around to the local clubs in Fiji, we’ll grow what we’re doing at the Drua with all the local clubs, and all the local coaches and we’ll create a development plan for players and coaches in the local competition,” he said.
Byrne is eager to be based in Fiji for the second season once COVID-related border challenges are resolved to accelerate the team’s progress.
But for now, he is perhaps the best man to lead the Fijian rugby revolution, thanks to the approach he learned from his old Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans.
He knows, as head coach, you can only do so much.
“It’s just about encouraging that thinking and that process through the players, and trusting the players want to get better.”