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'It's not going to be easy' - IRFU points to Ireland's big ask at the World Cup

The union is pleased with the work performance director David Nucifora is doing.

THE IRFU’S LATEST strategic plan sets out reaching World Cup semi-finals or better in 2019 and 2023 as one of the union’s key targets.

Joe Schmidt’s team are tasked with being the first senior men’s Irish team to get to the final four of the competition in Japan this year, with Ireland having suffered disappointment at the quarter-final stages on six previous occasions, as well as failing to reach that stage twice.

Joe Schmidt shares a joke with the team Joe Schmidt with his team at Thomond Park last week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IRFU CEO Philip Browne is among those hopeful that Ireland can finally get the monkey off their backs and prove themselves in the biggest tournament in rugby, but he says the union understands how difficult a challenge Schmidt’s men face.

If Ireland top Pool A, as expected, they would likely face either defending champions New Zealand or Rassie Erasmus’ ever-improving South Africa in the quarter-finals.

“You have to put a marker down somewhere and that [a semi-final] is the obvious marker,” said Browne.

“Having said that, it all requires a bit of luck along the way. Anyone who thinks we’ve got an easy job obviously hasn’t looked carefully at the draw.

“Potentially, if we get out of the pool, we have either South Africa or New Zealand, both of whom are potentially teams who could win the World Cup. It’s not going to be easy.”

Ireland’s disappointing Six Nations performances earlier this year dampened optimism among a section of supporters ahead of the World Cup, with some fearing that Schmidt’s team peaked too early for their 2018 Grand Slam success.

Browne conceded that it had been a “tricky enough Six Nations” for Ireland while pointing out that “Joe felt there was a certain number of injuries, a lack of momentum and I suppose he almost had one eye on the World Cup anyway.”

Guiding Ireland to the semi-finals or beyond would strengthen Schmidt’s standing in the game and would be a fitting finale to his six years in charge of the national team before stepping down to make way for Andy Farrell.

CJ Stander, Kieran Marmion and Chris Farrell Ireland are currently on a break week after training in Limerick last week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A new milestone for Ireland at the World Cup would also be another green tick for IRFU performance director David Nucifora, who has worked closely with Schmidt to ensure Irish rugby is set up to produce as strong a national team as possible.

Former Australia international Nucifora joined the union in what was a newly-created position in 2014 and recently extended his contract for another three years through until 2022.

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Browne said that re-contracting Nucifora as performance director had been a straightforward decision.

“I think he’s done a fantastic job,” said Browne. “In many respects, it’s a job where you’re not necessarily going to make friends. You’re not going to please all the people all the time.

“We made that conscious decision in Plan Ireland [the IRFU's strategic plan from 2013 to 2017 that created Nucifora's role] that there is no reward for mediocrity in professional sport.

“The reality is that a committee structure is generally based around compromise – you’re going to have two ends of a spectrum in a committee. Within high-performance sport, there isn’t necessarily much room for compromise. You have to do the right thing to get the right high-performance outcome.

“David has taken that very singular view and singular focus and has applied it right across the high-performance systems at national level and in the provinces.

“We’ve moved the decision-making from the old committee-based system to those who are technically-qualified to make the decisions, people in the technical side of the house.

Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora Nucifora with Ireland head coach Schmidt. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think the proof is in the eating of that particular pudding. We have as a good a high-performance system as any rugby union that I know of and, in some respects, we’re fortunate that small can be beautiful. You can effect change fairly quickly.

“There are tensions in the system, there are always going to be tensions in the system between the provinces and the national team. It’s inevitable because the provinces want to do the best they can and the national team wants to do the best it can. At certain times of the season, that can be tricky.

“I think we’re in a good place and I think David and his team have done a really good job.

“It was important to bed down those changes for the last five years and it’s great to have David on board for another three years.”

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Murray Kinsella

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