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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 20 April 2021

Nucifora wary of provincial 'parochialism' as Irish rugby looks to move forward

The IRFU’s performance director sat down for a briefing with the Irish rugby media in Sydney yesterday.

Murray Kinsella reports from Sydney

DAVID NUCIFORA ONLY grants the Irish rugby media a single briefing per season, meaning there is invariably plenty to squeeze in when the sit-down takes place.

There is also invariably plenty of food for thought upon leaving these briefings, as Nucifora offers insight into the workings of his mind and the focuses of the IRFU.

The union’s ‘performance director’ is essentially in charge of everything that goes into producing strong performances from Ireland’s various national teams and the four provinces.

David Nucifora Nucifora took up his role in 2014. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Joe Schmidt is a power in Irish rugby and influential at all levels, but Nucifora is the real boss and the buck has stopped with him since he took up his role in 2014.

With that in mind, it is very much to Nucifora’s benefit that he comes across as a man who doesn’t struggle to make tough decisions that may piss some people off.

Nucifora is the first person to have filled the role of performance director for the IRFU, with the position having been pushed for by the provinces and others within the game who were frustrated at the previous status quo of men in blazers with limited knowledge of the nature of professional rugby making important decisions.

Australian native Nucifora played for the Wallabies, head coached the Brumbies and the Blues in Super Rugby and held a position as the Australian Rugby Union’s general manager before taking up his current role with the IRFU.

Clearly, he seems better qualified to run the professional game in Ireland than others who were previously making big decisions with little of the same experience, apart from playing in the amateur era.

Nucifora’s latest briefing took place in Sydney on Monday, at the beginning of a week when Ireland could secure their first Test series success in Australia since 1979.

In a state-of-the-nation meeting, Nucifora pointed out that this has been a superb year for Irish rugby with a Grand Slam, a November clean sweep, Munster reaching two semi-finals and Leinster claiming their historic double.

Nucifora stated his belief that the IRFU’s player management system remains “a massive advantage over a lot of our competitors” and flagged the October appointment of Phil Glasgow as head of physiotherapy & rehabilitation as another positive step in that area.

The IRFU boss is positive, too, about the succession planning that has seen the likes of Andrew Porter, Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan come through at Test level, after the 2015 World Cup underlined that Ireland’s depth was not good enough.

“You also look at the Niall Scannells – they could very easily get lost in the system,” said Nucifora, who stood in the way of Munster attempting to sign Wallabies hooker Stephen Moore in 2015.

John Cooney John Cooney's rise has been a success story for the IRFU. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Niall has really come through and did well the other night.

“You have got John Cooney and it is well-documented where John has come from and what he was able to produce last season,” continued Nucifora, whose decision to block Ulster from extending Ruan Pienaar’s contract led to Cooney joining from Connacht.

“I sat up at Kingspan in their play-off game recently and almost surreally listened to the crowd chant ‘Cooney, Cooney, Cooney!’ I was thinking, ‘Am I really here?’ But he has been fantastic and they are the sorts of things that we want to keep doing because there are more of them out there, more of those opportunities out there for us.”

Nucifora touched on the work of the IQ Rugby department and pointed to the signings of Irish-qualified players Mike Haley and Will Addison for Munster and Sale, respectively, “who will put pressure on guys provincially and nationally.”

Indeed, Addison was already with the Ireland squad last week in Melbourne.

Nucifora extolled the rise of the Ireland men’s sevens team, having been behind the relaunch of that programme in 2015, and also highlighted the women’s sevens side as having had their best results on the World Series this season.

One blot on Nucifora’s record is the recent controversy around women’s rugby and the IRFU’s decision to decline an invitation for Ireland Women to tour Australia this month, which he answered questions about in Sydney.

Ireland’s miserable World Rugby U20 Championship performance this summer was “a reality check for us,” admitted Nucifora, although he believes that “sometimes you learn more in your bad years.”

“The Irish system needs to be continually worked on and improved and people talk about high performance – the two words that come up with high performance are relentless and uncompromising,” said Nucifora.

He also suggested that there is a possibility of Paddy Jackson and Start Olding returning to Ireland to play rugby in the future, even if they are abroad and out of the pitch for now.

Meanwhile, Nuciford revealed that a new eight-team Irish/Welsh competition will kick-off this September to replace the defunct British & Irish Cup, in which the provinces’ A sides “were at the whim of the English clubs.”

David Nucifora Nucifora wants club rugby to play a bigger part in the pathway. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The new Irish/Welsh competition will be played across seven weeks “with the aim of mimicking the intensity required and week-to-week competition that PRO14 gives our players.”

“It’s a development competition,” continued Nucifora, “but hopefully the fact that we’ll be doing it over seven consecutive weeks gives us a lot more replication of what the players, coaches, support staff and match officials will receive when they get promoted up into a proper league.”

Nucifora also confirmed that he and head of domestic rugby, Scott Walker, will soon meet with the top 20 club teams in the country to discuss “how we can further align Irish rugby by trying to get maximum benefit out of club competitions for the development of our players.”

While Nucifora declined to confirm the expected changes to the structure of the Ulster Bank League the season after next, he underlined the IRFU’s ambition to have the new A team competition and the UBL “run seamlessly into each other; allowing for the best players not playing Pro14 week-to-week to be available to play club rugby.”

Further up the chain, Nucifora is happy that Joey Carbery will be joining Munster next season as the IRFU continue to look to ensure there is no backlog of talent in one position at any of the provinces.

Ultimately, what is best for the national team is Nucifora’s primary motivation.

Leinster were naturally unhappy at what they perceived as the IRFU’s role in Carbery leaving the province, but that is something that comes with the territory for Nucifora.

“I don’t shy away from what we’re trying to do, that’s my job,” he said.

“My job is to make sure that we have the best players playing and I’m sure if Leinster or any of the other teams could keep as many good players as they possibly can, of course that’s what they’ll do. That’s only natural, I expect that.

“But at times, there are things in the system that clash and that was one of them. We’ve got 12 months to get Joey playing. We had to put Joey on the field in a Test match the other night to get game time. That’s not ideal, but we’ve got a coach who’s prepared to do that and I take my hat off to him for that. That’s an investment.

Joey Carbery kicks a penalty Carbery will be at Munster next season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Joey made a decision that if he wants to be the starting number 10 and surpass Johnny Sexton – because I’d suggest that’s what his ambitions are – then he knows he needs to play there regularly.”

Nucifora understands why some players are still reluctant to make inter-provincial moves but he believes the willingness to at least consider it has grown since he arrived in 2014, citing Jordi Murphy’s decision to go to Ulster next season as a positive.

While Nucifora insists that he does not believe a complete draft system is required, whereby players would be distributed to the provinces by the IRFU, he does feel there is still more progress to be made in this area.

Some critics have suggested that Nucifora simply doesn’t understand the provincial pride that has been so central in Irish rugby, but the former Wallaby hooker says he has done his best to do so, while still striving to ensure the national team benefits.

“It’s about making sure that we have the right players getting appropriate game time,” said Nucifora. “Because as much as there is the strength of parochialism, it can also be our biggest challenge. We’ve just got to manage it.

“No one wants to take away the identity of the teams but at the same time, no one wants to see the Ireland team doing poorly. If we don’t make the right decisions at the right times, it’s no good us sitting back in 2019 having a whinge about why something didn’t work and why we got knocked out in the [World Cup] quarter-finals again.

“We’ve got to make sure that the right decisions are made. The way the system works at the moment is that yes, there is a desire from us at times for people to take up opportunities but at the end of the day, it’s up to the players.

“Our system is dictated by what the players want and unless the player wants to go, he is not made to go anywhere. All we can do is create a system that shows him the opportunity and lets that happen and he has to say yes, I want to do that.

“I just think it’s a balancing act. I am certainly not shy about saying that this is what we have to do because I have said it all along: respect what we have got, respect the history of the provinces but we can’t let that get in the way of where we’re going and what we want to do.”

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Murray Kinsella

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