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'We’re not getting past that quarter-final block... we’ve got to unlock what it is'

The IRFU will be investing more in performance psychology in the years to come.

THE PLAYERS, THE coaches, the management – all of them were surveyed and many of them were interviewed after the World Cup.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora was the man to interview the now ex-Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, Andy Farrell, the other coaches and key management members like Paul Dean, who resigned this week.

Curiously, though, no one interviewed Nucifora.

david-nucifora Nucifora took up his role in 2014 and extended his contract until 2022 earlier this year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Part of the Australian’s remit is to oversee the performance of the national team and he was the man to state that anything less than reaching the semi-finals of this World Cup and the 2023 version would be failing to hit IRFU targets.

Nucifora was present in Japan with the Ireland squad throughout their campaign.

“No one interviewed me, maybe they should have, that’s not a bad idea,” said Nucifora yesterday after outlining some of the key lessons from the World Cup review.

“I’m sure they will at some point. We’ll sit down and talk about how the season went, how the block of time went… but my role is to look at this and be as objective as I can about how we went. It’s about being able to look at things to say, ‘What’s going to make us better?’

“The decisions that have been made have always been about ‘this is what is best for Irish rugby’ and what we do to keep getting better.”

The World Cup review report includes 50 recommendations that Nucifora hopes will help to achieve exactly that. He and new head coach Farrell – who is contracted through to the next World Cup in France in 2023 – have already sat down to go through the findings.

Nucifora opted not to delve into all 50 recommendations yesterday, insisting some were logistical and “boring”, instead opting to focus on four key areas – Ireland’s “performance anxiety,” a failure to evolve their style of play, underestimating Japan, and a deficiency in skills.

The mental aspect of the review is particularly interesting, with Nucifora outlining that Ireland’s players had struggled to deal with being “front-runners” after their exceptional year in 2018. Poor Six Nations performances this year resulted in anxiety building into the World Cup. In the end, the quarter-final hurdle proved insurmountable yet again.

Ireland had a mental skills coach in Enda McNulty during Schmidt’s time in charge, including at this World Cup, but Nucifora believes it’s an area of Irish rugby that needs to be improved.

“This isn’t pointed at Enda, he did everything he could during the tournament but I think it’s an ongoing thing,” said Nucifora.

enda-mcnulty-with-josh-van-der-flier Enda McNulty with Josh van der Flier during the World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“This whole area is developing and changing. Call it performance psychology, call it what you like, call it dealing with stress and mental wellbeing.

“Don’t get me wrong here that everyone was suffering from it – that’s far from the case but it was an element. There is an element of that and it’s not an element that international rugby players freely come out and put their hand up to talk about.

“It’s not like they were queuing up saying, ‘Hang on, I’m stressed, can you help me?’

“It’s far more subtle than that and we have to get better as an organisation at working out how we identify, how we support and develop around that. And how that links in with performance psychology, so that we’re in a better shape to be able to deal with whatever is thrown at us going forward because we’re not getting past that quarter-final block, so there is something there and we’ve got to try and unlock what it is.”

Schmidt’s view, expressed in his new book, is that Irish rugby might benefit from calling a halt to the manner in which it builds up World Cups, speaking about four-year cycles and stating that reaching a first-ever semi-final is the clear goal, which the IRFU has done.

But Nucifora doesn’t believe that is the solution.

“Everyone knows that there’s far more to what’s being achieved than just a quarter-final loss,” he said. “But we can’t hide from the fact that that was one of our goals. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stating that, with saying, ‘This is what we need to do’.

“I don’t see why we should shy away from that. Why does that make people nervous?

“Like, it’s actually part of what we’re here for. In performance sport, you go out to win everything.

“So whether we say or don’t say it, that’s what it’s about. So I think we just have to dust ourselves off, become a bit more robust and get on with it because the next one’s the same, we’ve got to get there.”

Nucifora said Schmidt was “incredibly honest” throughout the review process, aiming to conclude his time in charge by helping incoming boss Farrell to learn from Ireland’s mistakes after he had “poured his heart and soul into Irish rugby for 10 years.”

The lack of evolution in Ireland’s style of play now seems like an obvious point, although Nucifora admitted there is no way of knowing if a different tactical approach would have yielded a more positive World Cup outcome.

Nucifora said the union won’t be dictating an ideal style of play to Farrell, as he insisted “it’s a coach’s kingdom to work on that and decide how he wants that to pan out.”

jonathan-sexton-peter-omahony-and-tadhg-furlong-dejected Ireland have never been beyond the World Cup quarter-finals. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Underestimating Japan and not planning to approach the opening game against Scotland and the clash with the hosts six days later as a block also seems like a clear enough error with the benefit of hindsight.

Nucifora and the IRFU’s perception that Irish players’ skill levels need to keep improving – which tallies with Schmidt’s sense that players here could be more intuitive – is also foremost among their thoughts moving forward.

While that will affect the player development pathways, Nucifora explained that it will also mean changes at professional level, with new head coach Farrell set to have more direct involvement in ensuring the provinces are upskilling even experienced players.

“Joe and the coaches have done a great job working in with the provincial coaches, assessing things and discussing things and I think that Andy absolutely has a clear vision of building on that even further in how he works with the coaches in the provinces,” said Nucifora.

“No one can do this on their own, it’s always a collective effort to keep building, be it the pathway or be it the provinces. It takes a group of people to work together to keep moving forward.”

Earlier this year, Nucifora extended his contract as performance director through until 2022, meaning his current deal won’t actually take him to the next World Cup, although he said that “can be addressed along the way.”

He believes there is much going right in Irish rugby, including the level of talent coming through the pathway, the improvement of the men’s and women’s 7s teams, the form of the four provinces at a professional level, and the increased movement of players between the provinces.

He stressed yesterday that the review was not about ripping up what has actually worked in recent years, rather making subtle tweaks that can add up to finally getting a World Cup performance to be proud of in 2023.

“You’re not going to rock up here on February 1st [for Ireland's opening Six Nations game against Scotland] and see something that’s totally different,” said Nucifora.

“You’re not going to have the chance or opportunity to do that. I know that they’re working on a couple of things that they’d like to introduce but there’s going to be a gradual change, gradual improvement over time.

“That’s the building of things that will happen going forward and will culminate in another World Cup in four years.”

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Murray Kinsella

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