'Most guys get the shit kicked out of them': IRFU welfare system now more valuable than ever

David Nucifora is ready for a busy autumn of negotiating player contracts, but the in-built player management programme is a trump card to keep players with Irish provinces.

“WE OWE BILLY a cheque in the mail, I think!”

David Nucifora was joking, obviously, he hasn’t made a habit of cutting cheques without a fight during his time with the IRFU. But he’s dead serious about Billy Vunipola doing the IRFU a service.

At a time when the Aviva Premiership has been pushing for tighter international windows to allow for more time at club level, the injury-plagued England and Saracens number eight says he would take a pay-cut if it meant playing five fewer matches in a season.

“32 games is a lot, but it’s doable,” Vunipola told BBC 5 Live even before suffering his latest knee injury.

Billy Vunipola is tackled by Iain Henderson and Sean O'Brien Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

“But do you want people to just do it, or do you want people to go out there and smash it?”

This is all music to the ears of the IRFU who have long employed a player management programme that gives them a level of control over a player’s workload with a province, designed to bring them into international camp ready to peak.

And as the money on offer from the Premiership and Top14 continues to rise and be waved in front of cohort of Irish players with contracts running out this season, the union can still point to player welfare as an enormous intangible benefit to playing rugby on these shores.

“I’ll believe it when I see it, a pay-cut,” Nucifora says, “but it does make a statement that that’s how players feel. Our best weapon to the greater amount of money that exist in UK and France is the welfare system.

The players won’t come out and tell you that, but when we sit down to talk contracts that’s at the front of their mind, they know we care about them, that we manage them and that investment is for all parties. And that makes a difference for us to be able to compete with the bigger chequebooks.

“For us, the investment in (sports science and injury prevention) is money really well spent because it does have an outcome for us.”

It was a natural subject for the Australian to touch on yesterday as he spoke before the IRFU’s head of athletic performance Nick Winkleman (more from him later this week) as he unveiled a new piece of kit the union and provinces are using in an effort to avoid hamstring injuries.

David Nucifora Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Anecdotally our system is as good as everything else… Rob Kearney made a comment (last week): ‘if I was looked after back then as I am now then I’d be a totally different athlete’ and that’s what we’re trying to do.

“Time marches on, but if we’re as good as we can possibly be, then the Rob Kearneys of this (generation) won’t have some of the challenges that his body faces now.

In saying that, it is an attritional game, most guys get the shit kicked out of them week in, week out and we have to be doing everything we can in a preventative way to keep ahead of the game and get them in best shape possible.

“That works for us  and it works for them: we get more out of it, they get more out of it. They get to prove how good they can be for a longer period of time.”

With Kearney, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy, Kieran Marmion and Jared Payne among those with contracts up for renewal this season, Nucifora is heading into a busy autumn period of negotiations. And the union’s player welfare programme will be a core component of any offer, even to players who are struggling to get match minutes with their native province.

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Perhaps the most visible success of Nucifora’s time in Ireland has been the amount of players who have moved within the system, donning rival provincial colours rather than travel overseas.

John Cooney kicks a penalty John Cooney was the major beneficiary of Ruan Pienaar's departure as he moved from Connacht to Ulster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“If we can keep creating that sandwiched pressure on the playing group – retaining the best, bringing the best back through IQ (‘Irish Qualified’ Exiles programme), developing from bottom up –  when that squeeze comes, there are only so many opportunities within provinces to play.

“I guarantee you now players look at the four provinces and say: ‘look, where will I get the opportunity?’ So we’ve artificially created that pressure to look.

“Occasionally, they’ll pop out and go somewhere else because they can’t find that opportunity. Through IQ and Joe, (we) monitor them and stay in touch and, in time, they can be one of the boys who bounce back in — (we have) only got four teams and a Sevens team. That’s what we’ve got to work with.”

The example put to Nucifora was the wealth of resources in Leinster’s back row where proven Lions like Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien are returning to the fold to compete with internationals like Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock while Max Deegan knocks on the door.

Leinster’s own academy production line has created that glut of talent and they’re entitled to try and keep in blue, but Nucifora feels the ‘sandwiched pressure’ of competition may be enough to force the players to consider trying to become a regular with one of the other three provinces.

“We’re doing everything we can to create that competition that ultimately makes the player make a choice, maybe that logjam there will lead to that movement.”


Don’t hold your breath waiting on that cheque, Billy.

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