At first glance, the giant figure pinging balls off distant tackle-bags on the back pitches at Murrayfield could have been Scott Murray. A kicking second row? Who could imagine something so fanciful? Michael Byrne could, for one.
The 6ft 8in Australian hired by Ian McGeechan to straighten the costly kinks in Scotland's kicking game happens to be the guru who got John Eales into the groove before the Wallaby captain put the boot into the All Blacks in Wellington in the summer of 2000 with the 82nd- minute penalty that won the Bledisloe Cup.
"John Eales was a very good kicker before I came in touch with him," Byrne said, resplendent in his mud-splattered new Scotland tracksuit in the President's Suite at Murrayfield. "It was just a matter of refocusing him. Good kickers tend to follow the basic principles anyway."
Still, Rod Macqueen did feel sufficiently concerned about his place-kickers the summer before last to call Byrne into the Australian camp midway through the Tri-Nations Series. Byrne, a former professional Australian Rules footballer, had an on-going relationship with the Wallabies from before the 1999 World Cup. And, with his expert help, Eales kicked that match-winning penalty and Stirling Mortlock kicked the last-second penalty against the Springboks that clinched the series in Durban.
With Mortlock, it was not merely a matter of refocusing. Byrne was the specialist coach at ACT Brumbies who ingrained the good kicking habits that made Mortlock the fastest Wallaby to pass the 100-points mark. Now, two years on, after a brief stint with the Springboks, Byrne has taken up the challenge of whipping Scotland into kicking shape.
It is a considerable challenge, too, for the 43-year-old Sydneysider. As McGeechan lamented after Kenny Logan's collywobbled performance cost Scotland victory against Wales last February: "Goalkicking has let Scotland down for 30 years."
Make that 31 years. Gregor Townsend (against Argentina) and Chris Paterson (against the All Blacks) have since continued the Caledonian kicking tradition. Gordon Ross did score a debut record haul of 23 points against Tonga in November but, as third-choice outside-half, the 23-year-old has not been included in McGeechan's squad for the Six Nations opener against England at Murrayfield.
The choice of Calcutta Cup kicker has yet to be determined – from a field of Paterson, Townsend, Brendan Laney, James McLaren and Duncan Hodge – but Byrne is confident that signs of progress will be in evidence. "I certainly believe we can make a few big gains in the short term," he said. "As a kicker, you've got to be comfortable in what you're doing and already I think I've taken a couple of the guys into the comfort zone. They weren't very comfortable at all about their kicking.
"In international rugby you've got to be kicking 80 per cent. That's the target. At the moment our kickers are in the mid-to-high 60s. I'd like to think that we can get three or four of them up to 80."
It will no doubt help Byrne that he has been through the pains of the percentage game himself. Early in his Aussie Rules career with Hawthorn he registered zero per cent from eight attempts at goal in a match against Melbourne.
It proved to be a pivotal moment. A golf professional who happened to be an Australian Rules fan approached him at a celebrity golf day and showed him where he was failing in his kicking game.
"He said I was like a golfer who hooked the ball," Byrne recalled. "He took me down to the park and he did his golf swings and I tried to replicate it with my kicking and I found that I wasn't following through. I had a couple more sessions with him and, once I'd gone through the principles, I found I could basically kick the ball very straight."
All of that kicking was from hand, of course, though Byrne has shown that he can make place-kickers swing straight and accurately too. "The same principles apply," he said. The principles he learnt from 14 years of gathering high balls in Aussie Rules will also be applied to the twin role Byrne has taken as not just Scotland's kicking coach but their catching coach too. "With my background, I think that's an area we can really improve in," he said.
It will be an improvement in potting at the posts, though, that Scotland's supporters will be most anxious to see on Saturday. The 6ft 6in Scott Murray has been ruled out of the running for the place-kicking role, but whoever is picked for the job in front of the 67,500 crowd will have to handle the kind of pressure Byrne dealt with in the Australian Rules Grand Final of 1983. He landed three of his four kicks in Hawthorn's record 140-57 victory against Essendon that day – watched by an audience of 110,333 in the Melbourne Cricket Ground.Reuse content