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Nucifora addresses foreign signings as World Cup disappointment lingers

The IRFU’s performance director says he has no doubt the provinces can remain competitive in Europe.

HE’S ALREADY BEEN compared to Keyser Söze by some.

Lurking in the shadows, rarely seen but often perceived to be creating some evil mischief for the provinces to deal with.

Perhaps Heisenberg of ‘Breaking Bad’ is a more apt comparison. Again, the reputation of power and a hint of danger precede the man, but in truth he is rather affable and genuinely seems to care for those under his direct care.

David Nucifora David Nucifora has been busy re-contracting players in recent weeks. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ruthlessness is a shared trait of those two fictional characters and David Nucifora needs a great deal of that characteristic in his position as the IRFU’s key decision maker.

The Aviva Stadium played host yesterday evening as Nucifora held a rare media briefing with a handful of rugby journalists. The IRFU’s performance director, who officially took up his role in June 2014, hasn’t made his public dealings all that frequent.

He was formally introduced to the media in April 2014 to outline his initial goals, and then sat alongside Joe Schmidt in April 2015 to dismantle Matt O’Connor’s “grossly inaccurate” criticisms of the IRFU’s player management programme.

Given the generally negative mood around Irish rugby at present, some of it directed at the IRFU, now was as good a time as any for Nucifora to deliver his latest messages and answer questions about where things stand for the game on these shores.

There has been plenty of existential ponderings around the four provinces this season, while Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina is where the downbeat mood seemingly began.

What better place to start then?

“No, it’s not where we wanted to be,” said Nucifora. “We would be kidding ourselves (to say otherwise). We wanted to go further in the tournament, we want to go at least to a semi-final. We are not happy with that, with the way that it ended up.

“Does that mean it was a failure? No, it doesn’t because there is a lot of good things that have come out of Irish rugby in the last number of years. We have had a coach (Joe Schmidt) in place in place now for two years who has managed to deliver us two Six Nations titles with this group of players.

“We won the pool in the World Cup which was a good achievement. Yes, we lost a quarter-final game, that is disappointing. Does that mean it is a failure? No. Are we disappointed? Yes.”

Jamie Heaslip dejected after the game Ireland ultimately disappointed at RWC 2015. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Mixed messages perhaps, but Nucifora was insistent that a sixth World Cup quarter-final failure in Irish rugby history was not good enough.

“It’s too many quarter-finals and we need to be going past that number and getting into the real business end of World Cups,” said Nucifora.

“That’s not going to happen unless we do look at actively changing the way we’ve always done things. If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’re going to keep getting quarter-finals and I suppose they’re the things we have to make sure don’t happen again.”

Nucifora led a highly-detailed World Cup review in the month or so following Ireland’s exit, interviewing key players within the squad, the coaching staff, the management team and also influential figures at each of the four provinces.

The findings were naturally numerous, although Nucifora indicated that many of them belonged in the domain of “incremental gains.” Other changes sparked by the World Cup quarter-final exit “aren’t going to be palatable for everyone all the time.”

One key issue that the former Australia hooker continually returned to was that of true depth in Ireland’s national team stocks. The losses of Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony for the quarter-final has already been touched upon in detail before, but Nucifora pointed to them once again.

Though Nucifora praised Schmidt for his attempts to build depth in Ireland’s squad before the World Cup, the assertion was that those first-choice players simply weren’t replaced adequately. We hardly needed a World Cup report to tell us as much.

Nucifora proceeded to read a segment of the 2011 World Cup review report in order to underline that this issue has been affecting Irish rugby for too long.

“To truly produce a crop of world-class players, it’s vital to ensure that there are no obstacles in the performance pathway to stop the development of talent in all positions,” read Nucifora from that 2011 report.

Jimmy Gopperth Jimmy Gopperth kept Ian Madigan out of the 10 shirt for Leinster in recent seasons. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The current discussions about the number of foreign players in the provincial teams is a crucial issue in this respect. While the concerns for provincial success are understandable, if the priority for Ireland is to continue success in the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup, then maximising the exposure of up and coming players is vital.”

Nucifora further cited the 2011 report’s insistence on “an unimpeded pathway for the development of talented players” and the need for Irish rugby “to face up to the challenges of further national and provincial integration.”

It sounds remarkably familiar, and Nucifora’s major objective is that we will not be repeating the same concerns in 2019 after another World Cup quarter-final failure. He says the 2011 issues are still pre-eminent and must be met head-on.

The “blockages” for young Irish players, in the shape of foreign signings, need be addressed.

“I’ll give you an example of that if we use, say, Ian Madigan,” said Nucifora. “Ian in the two years leading into the World Cup played only a handful of games at his province as a starting number 10.

“Ian then goes on to be required to be the starting number 10 in the quarter-final of the World Cup. Is that the perfect preparation? I would say not.

“So there’s things like that in our system that aren’t perfect and unless we address that type of detail, we’re not going to be really getting on top of some of the challenges we’re faced with.

“It’s those sorts of issues that we’ve got to work together with everyone to make sure that we come up with a system that doesn’t leave us facing the same hurdles as currently exist.”

The presence of Jimmy Gopperth at Leinster for the last two seasons the major reason Madigan didn’t play at out-half more often, and though Nucifora says Gopperth being there was not ideal, he is keen to stress that there is a role for foreign players in Ireland.

“I’m certainly not against foreign players,” said Nucifora. “There definitely is a place for the foreign players in our system, because history shows there are a heck of a lot of foreign players who have added a heck of a lot of value to Irish rugby over the years.

Dougie Howlett runs at the Ospreys The provinces' ability to attract high-profile foreign players has faded. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“What we want to avoid is having teams or anyone making ad-hoc decisions in isolation that seem like a good decision at the time but don’t actually fit into their plan or, on a broader level, fit into a national plan.

“Obviously we can’t get logjams in any one particular position, we have to make sure it fits across the country.”

Nucifora and the IRFU have shown their growing hesitance to support signings from abroad recently with the Stephen Moore and Munster situation, which he looked to clarify yesterday, and other examples with Ulster and Leinster.

Nucifora says “the buck stops with me” regarding signing off on or denying the provinces non-Irish qualified transfer targets, but stresses that there is a more clear-cut, logical system in place to assess the merits of each possible signing.

“There’s talent, there’s opportunity and then there’s the quick-fix model, so we have to make sure that the foreigners that are put forward to us actually do the job that is required,” said Nucifora.

“It can’t just be a knee-jerk reaction to say, ‘Here’s a foreigner that some player agent has put in front of us’. It’s got to be a plan that is well thought through if someone is going to be given the tick to go ahead and come into the system.”

In August of this year, the IRFU advertised the position of ‘business intelligence analyst,’ a role which would include “data analysis and benchmarking in the area of player contracting” among many other duties.

Claire Wallace has filled that role since and aids Nucifora in his decision-making around any possible new additions for the provinces.

The Irish provinces are allowed a maximum of four NIQ players and one project player (who will eventually qualify under the three-year residency rule), but Nucifora feels they may be better off in seeking out two world-class players instead of filling that quota.

“The four-plus-one is still there as a number, but does that fit the financial model that is sustainable for us to continue to get four foreign players in?

“It might be a case of just getting in two really good ones and as opposed to four average ones and invest the rest of our money into trying to hold on to the best of our Irish boys.”

David Nucifora Nucifora is a former Australia hooker. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Indeed, Nucifora goes a step further and agrees that allowing private investment into the provinces to aid with the signing of those two world-class foreign players is an avenue that might be worth exploring.

“We have got to find a way to be able to bring things into the Irish system that fit for us and work for us,” said Nucifora. “If that includes looking at philanthropy or looking at other types of private investment, sure, nothing is off the table and we will and we are looking at all types of different things to be able to remain competitive.

“It might be that it’s a case of the high-profile foreign players might be the ones that are funded by that private money and the rest of the money is spent on funding Irish players to keep them in the country.”

Much of the doom and gloom in Irish rugby at present has stemmed from the Champions Cup displays of Munster and Leinster. Nucifora points to Ulster’s double win over Toulouse in the last fortnight and also highlights Connacht’s efforts in the Challenge Cup, but does admit to disappointment at the other two provinces’ performances.

Many have argued that Leinster and Munster are now in a period of decline and will struggle to compete with the ever-improving English clubs and Top 14 behemoths.

Nucifora, however, sees only a “fall off in form” and remains convinced that the provinces can be competitive in Europe. The IRFU man does not accept that success for the provinces is becoming even more secondary to the overriding goal of national team success.

“We’re not happy, the teams are not happy I know, the coaches are not happy with the losses in the last two weeks for Munster and Leinster, but the margins are fine and, again, they’re going to be back to the drawing board working on what are the small things that could have been the point of difference to help us win those games,” said Nucifora.

“I think you would agree that both the teams could have won those two games with a couple of different scenarios panning out,” said Nucifora, who went on to note that Leinster played as many international players as Toulon did in their double header.

“When you’re in professional sport and you’re a professional coach, you understand the margins that you’re working in are fine margins. If you have a bad trot, then you don’t throw everything out the window – that would be the worst thing you could possibly do.

“You’ve got to re-assess everything that you do and you’ve got to be able to fine-tune it to work out how to get your team winning again. But we would all be more than confident, the provinces and ourselves, that we’ve got the players there to be able to still win European competitions. I have no doubt about that.”

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Murray Kinsella

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