David Humphreys.

Experienced Humphreys will look to make influential IRFU role his own

The former Ireland and Ulster player will take on one of the most important jobs in Irish Rugby next year.

WHEN DAVID NUCIFORA arrived on these shores in 2014, the Irish Rugby landscape looked very different to what exists today. 

At the time, his appointment as Performance Director was a fascinating one. It was the first time the IRFU had employed someone in that role, and the man they entrusted with streamlining the thinking of the Union towards the national team was an outsider. The twice-capped Wallaby was a former General Manager of Australian Rugby’s High Performance Unit and had held coaching role with the Brumbies and Auckland Blues. He came to Ireland with no baggage and no history here. An initial five-year deal has since stretched out to 10, with Nucifora set to depart following next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.

Earlier today it was announced that former Ulster and Ireland out-half David Humphreys will be Nucifora’s successor. It’s a very different appointment to the one the IRFU made back in 2014. Humphreys is a household name among rugby fans on both sides of the border and spent years working within the system here, both on the pitch and in the boardroom. That inside knowledge is complemented by his extensive experience working in the UK and further afield. 

During his playing days Humphreys established himself as a icon of Ulster Rugby. Having lined out for London Irish in the early days of professionalism, the Belfast native captained his home province to a famous European Cup win in 1999 as Ulster became the first Irish side to land the trophy. Humphreys also won a Celtic Cup in 2004 and Celtic League in 2005/2006.

At Test level, he debuted for Ireland in 1996 and retired 1o years later after winning 72 caps and scoring 560 points.   

david-humphreys-3082003 Humphreys won 72 caps for Ireland. INPHO INPHO

After playing his last game for Ulster in 2008, he quickly embarked on a new career in the club’s offices. Humphreys was appointed Ulster Operations Director that June and the following year he stepped up to the role of Director of Rugby, a position he held until 2014.

During that time he experienced many of the challenges he will face again when he joins the IRFU. Humphreys is the man who helped bring Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, Stefan Terblanche and John Afoa to Ulster. Tommy Bowe also cited Humphreys as a key factor in his decision to turn down various offers and return to his home province from the Ospreys in 2012.

Player transfers and contract negotiations will be a central part of Humphreys’ role and as Keith Wood told Off The Ball this morning, his former teammate has the ‘steely edge’ needed to make tough calls. In 2012 Ulster’s decision to part ways with head coach Brian McLaughlin was met with shock. McLaughlin had led Ulster to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup in the previous season and would steer them to the final in the months after his impending departure was confirmed. Yet Humphreys felt Ulster needed a change and acted on it.

Ultimately, Ulster didn’t land any silverware during Humphreys’ tenure but he remained a popular figure in Belfast as the team enjoyed some good years on the pitch and his decision to leave for Gloucester in 2014 brought more shockwaves, with Ulster Chief Executive Officer Shane Logan at the time admitting “the speed (of his exit) at the end was certainly a surprise.”

Humphreys went on to spend six years at Gloucester as Director of Rugby, with the club winning the 2015 Challenge Cup and reaching the final in both 2017 and 2018.  After leaving Kingsholm at the end of the 2019/20 campaign, he took on a High Performance consulting role with Georgia for the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup.

gloucesters-director-of-rugby-david-humphreys Humphreys joined Gloucester in 2014. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Humphreys has moved away from rugby to gain experience in different environment across the last two years. In 2021 he joined Cricket Ireland’s High Performance Committee and then became Director of Cricket Operations for the England and Wales Cricket Board in February 2023. 

A qualified solicitor, Humphreys also has knowledge of the business world, having founded SportsWork – an aggregator of career opportunities in the world of sport – in 2021.

Those varied experiences at home and abroad led the IRFU to believe he is the right man to take such a pivotal role and drive Irish Rugby forward, and it was interesting to note that the interview panel included members of the IRFU senior leadership team, as well as high performance expert Gary Keegan. 

Humphreys has described his new job as “the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition” but as Nucifora will surely be quick to tell him, he’ll have to get used to making unpopular decisions. 

Last year’s Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa is a prime example of a time when a Nucifora-backed decision sparked frustration and anger at the provinces, yet Andy Farrell will point to the development of players like Jack Crowley and Joe McCarthy and mark that tour down as a success.

Humphreys joins at a time when the Irish Rugby system is the envy of many unions around the globe. Despite another World Cup quarter-final exit, there is a strong player development pathway and the provinces are in good health, particularly when you consider the woes of the Welsh clubs and the financial issues which continue to threaten the game in England. 

Nucifora’s revival of the Sevens programme has been a success with both the men’s and women’s teams set to compete at the Paris Olympics next summer, an event they hope will general new interest in the sport again.

The fortunes of the women’s 15s team has been one of the few black marks during Nucifora’s time in Ireland. To see the team competing in the lowly ranks of the Women’s XV3 competition is a reminder of how far they have slipped but there is hope the new central contracts introduced last year can be a first step towards building a more competitive team. 

Many working in the club game will also hope Humphreys will show the AIL more love and attention than his predecessor. An AIL winner with Dungannon in 2001, just three years ago Humphreys told Belfast Live “If club rugby dies then professional rugby dies with it. Somehow we have to try and develop the club game.”

All of this and more will be on Humphreys’ desk when he steps into his new office next year. He’ll no doubt admire much of what Nucifora has built but he’ll also look to make the job his own. Given his varied experiences both in Ireland and abroad, he appears well placed to do just that.

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