He feels that if someone had a problem with Cheika at the time, it needed to be addressed.
“I had arguments with Cheik all the time about a number of things – probably not as many in the All Black environment – but I still had discussions and debates and disagreements and you’re in it together,” Byrne told the Herald. “When a decision is made … when you walk out of that room, you disagree and commit. It’s the only way you can function. I might have disagreed with some stuff but I was totally committed until the end.
“If that doesn’t happen, the thing falls apart while you’re doing it. Players will find a shoulder, especially disgruntled ones. They will find someone who will listen to them. You just can’t be in a team that allows them to happen.
“If you’re having conversations behind the scenes in a campaign, you’re in trouble. The leaders and the people in a position of authority or seniority who accept those conversations are more guilty than the player having the conversation. They are in a position to do something.
“We all had our input into the game plan but at the end of the day the head coach is going to say, ‘I’ve heard everything you have said but this is what you’re going to do,’ and you say no worries and you commit.”
In an article published on rugby.com.au, Cheika returned serve.
“I’ve not slagged anyone, not spoken poorly of any other person inside the organisation and I don’t want to,” Cheika said. “At a certain point sometimes where the line is crossed on what the truth is you have to stand up and say, ‘This is not right and that person shouldn’t be talking like that’.
“This concept that I could dominate the selection process is totally ridiculous, it was a vote of three every time.
“Being a selector for Australia is a prestigious position. I think it shows the disregard for it when that person’s talking like that about stuff that’s close to the team and is not really qualified to make those comments.”
Byrne took umbrage at O’Connor’s view that the number of dropped balls at training was “disturbing” and that players like Sekope Kepu, who was mentioned in the story, were out of place in the wider channels. He noted how well some of Australia’s forwards played in matches, particularly during the miracle comeback of Salta in 2018.
“I can understand what Snoz [O’Connor] is saying because he came into a program and he wasn’t involved in what we’re trying to do,” Byrne said. “Sometimes you think, far out there’s some dropped ball today. Sometimes you’re trying to work on stuff and working them sharper and harder. You do have days where those things happen.
“If people read that article and think we were just putting up with dropped balls and training was a farce and a joke, well that’s not the way it was.
“It’s a 15-man game. You can’t just have forwards hitting it up, those days are gone unfortunately for the old diehards. It’s not rugby league.
“I didn’t understand the reason for the article and saying that stuff. I don’t understand why he wanted to say that.
“I know Snoz wasn’t using Sekope as a scapegoat but I don’t think you should use his name. It’s not Keps. You could say a prop in the midfield. It’s not like they weren’t capable of doing a good job out there. Sometimes it didn’t work, sometimes it did.
“There’s nothing wrong with having those guys in the midfield like Alan Alaalatoa and Scott Sio. Snoz is probably looking back in the day when front-rowers couldn’t do that shit. Our front-rowers are pretty good players.”
As for the issue of Cheika being dominant at the selection table, which also featured director of rugby Scott Johnson, Byrne said he stayed in his own lane.
“Prior to [O’Connor and Johnson coming on board in 2019] we’d have those chats [about selection] with Cheika on a Sunday or Monday,” Byrne said. “Those conversations were less [when they came in] because it didn’t matter what we thought. Cheik was interested in what we thought but it was what the other two blokes were going to say in selection.
“When the head coach has made the call, he’s entitled to do that. When you go out of that room you deliver that. You front up the next week and have the same argument and discussion.”
Byrne said that while not everything was perfect at the World Cup, he wished in hindsight he could have had more access to national players.
“If players were working on their skill sets 12 months of the year, we’d be far better off,” Byrne said. “It would have been nice to have access to the players for 12 months into the World Cup. For me when I was leading into the 2015 World Cup with New Zealand I had an hour with the All Blacks players once a week.”
Tom Decent is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald