Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
IRFU performance director David Nucifora [left].
# Next Level
'If you want to stay with the big boys, you've got to play with the big boys'
IRFU performance director David Nucifora said friction is simply part of the Irish rugby system.

AFTER LISTENING TO him talk and answer questions for 90 minutes yesterday, it was clear that David Nucifora is very happy with the state of Irish men’s rugby.

He mentioned several times how the Irish system attracts jealous glances and curious questions from other unions, how Ireland have consistently been in the top four ranked sides in the world and only recently beat the All Blacks in their series down in New Zealand, the continued success of the Ireland U20s, the improvement of the 7s team, and the number of talented players who continue to come through the pipeline.

Of course, Irish women’s rugby is very much a work in progress.

Nucifora is the IRFU’s performance director, the man who oversees everything in the professional and high performance sphere. The success of the Irish teams is his responsibility. He’s been in the role since 2014 and has allies and enemies around the country. The thick-skinned Australian welcomes friction as a positive thing and he’s not afraid to make decisions that upset people. For Nucifora, it’s all just part of the gig. 

And while he repeatedly highlighted Irish rugby’s achievements yesterday, Nucifora did also flag that they need to avoid complacency and look to move to the next level as Ireland target success at next year’s World Cup.

One of his concerns is how all those talented youngsters will actually get chances to play when they reach professional level. Nucifora worries that English clubs and others will be able to lure young Irish players away if they’re not getting game time in the IRFU system.

“What’s happening now is that we have a model where over the next couple of years, we’re going to run out of space,” said Nucifora.

“If everyone down the bottom keeps doing their job as well as they have done it or we keep improving there, we’re going to run out of space in the provinces. 

“The reality is those players will look elsewhere if they don’t get time. We have to be creative and thoughtful about what’s going to happen next. I’m not 100% sure what it is yet but we have to find ways for those players to be given hope and opportunities.”

Hence the recent Emerging Ireland tour and the return of the Ireland A team. There is more to come in this area. Interestingly, Nucifora is keen to look beyond the usual spots like Wales, Scotland, and Italy for better opposition. He did not sound at all impressed with the URC’s suggested ‘Next Gen’ competition.

Nucifora wants young Irish players to be getting more chances against South African, English, and French teams.

the-emerging-ireland-team-celebrate-after-the-game Steve Haag / INPHO Emerging Ireland recently toured South Africa. Steve Haag / INPHO / INPHO

“We’ve got to look at who we rub shoulders with,” said Nucifora. “What does good look like? We’ve probably spent a lot of time in the last long period of time mixing with the teams we mix with geographically, our local partners.

“That’s served us really well and we won’t neglect them going forward but we have to look at different options. If you want to stay with the big boys, you’ve got to play with the big boys, and play with them more often.

“You’ve got to look at how you play with those larger countries more often, whether it be South Africa, England, France, whoever it may be down in the Southern Hemisphere. We have to find ways to expose ourselves to competitions or tours where we’re stretching and challenging our players to another level. That’s at the very forefront of our minds going forward. Just doing the same things isn’t going to wash.”

When it was jokingly put to Nucifora that the IRFU should set up a fifth province in Cork, he laughed but he didn’t rule out the possibility of a fifth Irish team at some point in the future.

“You’ve got to look at everything. There’s a financial attachment to it. It’s not cheap to run one of these professional teams. I think at the moment, four teams works, but we’ve probably got to be smarter with how we work with the four teams.

“Does it rule out that you’ll ever have a fifth team? I don’t think so. You’ve got to keep that on the table, but at the moment I think you’ve got to look at the model and how that can be adapted and manipulated because everything we do has to be financially sustainable as well.

“We’ve got to be able to afford what we do.”

Regarding the current financial situation in the IRFU, Nucifora said the union has come out of the pandemic in “reasonably strong” condition and added that he would “rather be in our shoes than a lot of our competitors’ shoes.”

Nucifora’s current contract expires after the 2023 World Cup but he indicated yesterday that he may agree to another short extension before helping the transition to his successor in 2024. At that stage, a decade with the IRFU will have been “a pretty good stretch.” Clearly, he believes that there is lots more work to be done before he disappears off into the sun. 

And he also clearly understands that some of his and the IRFU’s decisions are going to cause further friction. As with the recent Emerging Ireland tour, there tend to be clashes with the provinces from time to time as they also push for what’s best for their interests.

“There’s always debate,” said Nucifora. “It can happen at any level of the game. It happens all the time because we are robustly discussing what is best. No one is doing it for any other reason other than they want to see Irish rugby, as a whole, get better.

irelands-david-nucifora Billy Stickland / INPHO Nucifora has been with the IRFU since 2014. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“And you dust yourself off at the end of it and you get on with it. You might have a day where you’re a bit cranky but you get back to work and you just get on with it.”

One sector of the game in which Nucifora seems to be unpopular is the All-Ireland League, with several clubs feeling like the IRFU don’t have any great grá for them.

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A few years ago, Nucifora proposed a semi-pro set-up for the AIL but his plans were rejected. It seems like he has left this tier of Irish rugby to others in the union since. In his view, the glory days are never coming back for the AIL.

“It will always have a purpose because it houses a lot of younger players to be able to give them that game time,” said Nucifora.

“Realistically do I see that massive evolution of the role of the club game changing if we’re looking five or 10 years down the road? I don’t. None of them will like that because historically it has had an elevated importance going back a number of years now.

“But it will always have an important role, it just won’t be at the elevated level as it was before the provinces. That’s not demeaning it in any way, it’s just a fact. It’s part of life and things roll on and things change. But it’s important, it plays a huge role in the success that we have had in that pathway space and what it does for those young guys. And we desperately want to keep it healthy.”

7s has been Nucifora’s baby since he arrived in 2014 and swiftly relaunched the Ireland men’s programme. He proudly watched the men’s team claim a bronze medal at this year’s World Cup and was happy to confirm an increase in pay for men’s players.

They’re still earning a maximum salary of €30,000, with most on less than that, and Nucifora admitted that it’s not easy for a group of players who are now dreaming of a gold medal at the 2024 Olympics.

“A lot of those players have been giving everything they’ve got in the professional training environment on very small amounts of money for a long time. I see things written about cost of living and other things – those players have been doing it for a long time.

ireland-players-celebrate-with-former-teammate-greg-oshea Travis Prior / INPHO Ireland won bronze at this year's 7s World Cup. Travis Prior / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m not saying that’s right or good. I’m saying they’ve done it and I think sometimes we also need to stop and think about what Olympic athletes do.

“When you look at the model in Ireland and what our Olympic athletes here get, they would kill for the money that’s being offered to our players at the moment.

“Sometimes we lose a bit of context. We’re not saying it’s perfect but it’s better and we’ve said all along we’ll try and keep getting better at what we can provide for them.

“15 to 30 grand is not a lot of money but it will enable them to train full-time and with the bonus structures and everything else, if you’re a top-tier player you’d probably earn yourself €45,000 in a year if you do well and are successful in teams.”

So on rolls the Nucifora era of Irish rugby, with the World Cup, Olympics, and maybe even some new competitions or tours for the young guns in the near future.

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