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'At any interface point in the game, there is always going to be friction'

The IRFU’s David Nucifora on the club game, financial problems, and Irish rugby’s reliance on the schools system.

Ireland finished the Six Nations on a high this year but have been missing IRFU targets.
Ireland finished the Six Nations on a high this year but have been missing IRFU targets.

IF YOU JUDGE the IRFU’s current performance against their own strategic plan, then you wouldn’t be giving them a particularly high mark.

That plan – released in 2018 as Joe Schmidt and co. beat all around them – requires Andy Farrell’s Ireland to win the next two Six Nations titles in order to achieve one particular objective – win two or more championships from 2019 to 2023. 

The objective of reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2019 wasn’t achieved and it remains to be seen if they can overcome a tough draw to do it in 2023, while Ireland currently sit outside the top three of the World Rugby rankings – therefore missing out on another goal.

Although Leinster have been dominating the Pro14, the Irish provinces would need to lift the next two Champions Cup trophies to hit another objective in the IRFU’s plan.

On the women’s rugby front, it’s difficult to see Ireland winning a Six Nations title by 2023 as the gap to England and France appears to grow.

The women’s sevens team missed out on a goal of reaching the Tokyo Olympics, while the men’s sevens side have a difficult task in Monaco this month at the final qualifying competition if they are to hit that target. 

So if you’re the kind of person that judges an organisation against the stated targets in its strategic plan, the IRFU is currently underperforming. Critics of the union’s performance director, David Nucifora, have plenty of ammunition.

The man himself doesn’t appear too worried about what was written in that document, as he expressed during his annual state-of-the-nation briefing yesterday. 

“Strategic plans are great but you’ve got to put something down on paper as to what you want to achieve and to strive towards it,” said the Australian.

“Sure, last time we put down – I see it noted often that we didn’t make a semi-final in the World Cup – fine. That’s really disappointing that we didn’t do it, didn’t achieve it and you accept that but you have to have something to aim for. When you’re an elite sporting team, you’re trying to win all the time.”

Nucifora’s view is that Irish rugby is in “reasonably healthy shape” and he believes the provinces and national teams can get back on an upswing in terms of results on the big occasions.

Of course, the past 16 months have thrown up unexpected issues that have been difficult for every union and the IRFU is no different. Nucifora says the pandemic cost Irish rugby €35 million last year and will mean another loss of €30million in 2021.

DN IRFU performance director David Nucifora.

That has resulted in redundancies for IRFU staff and a reduction in player wages, as well as 10% cuts to budgets in all areas of the game. 

“It will take years for us to claw back,” warned Nucifora, who hopes that the union has positioned itself well to recover as society opens back up. The IRFU are praying that they will be able to get big crowds into the Aviva Stadium this November, given their desperate need to start generating matchday revenue again.

Amidst the financial challenge, Nucifora is understandably pleased that the IRFU and the four provinces were able to re-contract virtually every single player they wanted to keep into next season apart from the retiring CJ Stander.

Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, and Cian Healy were all retained on central contracts, a system which the IRFU intends to continue with despite weighing up a change on more than one occasion.

“We’ve revisited that a number of times and looked at the different models that could work and at the moment we haven’t been able to come up with anything that is better than the model that we have,” said Nucifora of central contracts.

“The model is strong, it helps us retain our players, it helps us keep the provinces strong, which is important, and I suppose that crosses over into our unwritten rule of only selecting players that are playing in Ireland.

“If we were to loosen it, that would make the provinces vulnerable to losing a lot more players because they would have the ability to come back and play for Ireland and not necessarily contribute to Irish rugby through their provinces which would have a knock-on, detrimental effect.

“For the IRFU, in this time of financial hardship, would it be a good idea? It probably would, you know, to pass on the cost of our top players to English, French or Japanese clubs, but that’s not the right thing to do.

“The right thing to do is to support the provinces, keep the game healthy in Ireland, and maintain what we are doing. I think our model has proven to be quite strong.”

While Nucifora believes the top layer of Irish rugby is “in a pretty healthy place,” there have been concerns outside the IRFU about the pipeline that feeds into it. 

Many in club rugby feel disenfranchised given that Nucifora has shown little interest in the AIL – the league is barely mentioned in the IRFU’s strategic plan – since his proposal to form two semi-professional divisions of eight teams was rebuffed by the clubs in 2018.

However, Nucifora insisted yesterday that club rugby “has a really important part to play” as that level of the sport looks forward to finally getting back into games from July. He did admit that the relationship between the professional game and club game could be improved.

“It can always get better,” said Nucifora. “At any interface point in the game, there is always going to be friction. That’s not unique to Ireland, it’s the same everywhere. It’s something we continually work at.”

eamonn-mills-is-tackled-by-fintan-coleman Irish club rugby is due to get back underway in the coming months. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

He added that the IRFU’s Collie McEntee and Peter Smyth are currently looking at “how we can make that interface as effective as we possibly can.

“I’ve said before that it’s not healthy for the gap to widen between the community game and professional game,” said Nucifora. “That’s not healthy for either side. We need to keep working on it and it’s no one’s intention to widen that gap.”

A vibrant, connected club rugby scene in Ireland could only be a good thing for the professional arm of the sport, with Nucifora admitting that Irish rugby is too reliant on the schools game as its predominant source of players.

“Yeah, I think we are,” said Nucifora when asked if Irish rugby is over-dependent on the schools system. “I think I’ve been reasonably clear that we’re consistently encouraging the provinces and ourselves to get into areas outside of those traditional nurseries and we have to continue to do more work in that space and we are and we’ve got plans that we continue to work on as to how we get out there and get access to a broader talent pool.

“We’ve got a small playing base in this country and we have to make sure that we tap into everything that we have. We’ve got to be agile. We’ve got to be smart and we’ve got to use everything at our disposal.”

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Nucifora insists the IRFU’s work in this area will soon be apparent, but it remains to be seen if anything changes. 

The launch of IQ Rugby [Irish-Qualified] in 2017 was heralded as a major move by the IRFU and that branch of the union now has three full-time staff in the UK – on top of the existing network of Exiles volunteers – where their role is to find professional players to bring into the Irish system. 

While admitting it’s disappointing to see a prospect like Hayden Hyde returning to Harlequins from Ulster and promising centre Dan Kelly potentially switching allegiance to England, Nucifora insists the door remains open to both players. He believes there is also plenty more to come from IQ Rugby.

“I think we are and I think it’s only going to grow,” said Nucifora when asked if the IRFU is getting a return on its investment in IQ Rugby.

“If you look back to our U20s last year and look at the number of IQ players who have come into that, the number of IQ players we’re seeing in the system now and we’re going to continue to grow that arm of the IRFU in coming years.

“There are many other players who have come through and there will continue to be more IQ players not just from the UK but other parts of the world as well that will feature.”

leicester-tigers-dan-kelly Ireland U20 international Dan Kelly has impressed for Leicester. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Nucifora clearly has plenty on his plate as he heads into the final year of his IRFU contract, which is due to expire in the summer of 2022. 

He was non-committal when asked if he is keen to extend that deal.

“Covid has affected us all in different ways and the stresses and strains that it’s put on everyone,” said Nucifora. “Personally, it’s put different stresses on me, being separated from my family, which is difficult.

“From a professional point of view, we have worked unbelievably hard in the last 15 months just to keep the game afloat. Would I like to have seen us further down the road with the strategies that we’ve put in place? Yes, I would.

“But we’ve had to do what we’ve had to do to keep the game going – that’s probably held us back from achieving some of the things that I would have liked to have achieved at this point in time.

“That’s something that I’ve just got to weigh up over the next 12 months as to whether that’s the right thing to do on a personal front, and on a professional front whether it’s the right thing to do as well, and if the IRFU want me to remain doing what I’m doing.”

All in all, a big year lies ahead for Irish rugby. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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