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Nucifora quietly exerts his influence over the direction of Irish game


David Nucifora
David Nucifora

By Ruaidhri O’Connor

Chances are, David Nucifora could have walked through the RDS last Saturday with most fans oblivious to his influence.

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The IRFU’s performance director has been on the island for five years, but he is content to operate largely in the shadows. His remit is staggeringly broad, but he gives the impression of a man who relishes the role and this week he signed on until 2022.

Brought in to shake things up, Nucifora has certainly ruffled feathers, and the World Cup will come to define how successful he has been in restructuring Irish rugby with a view to success in Japan.

Since he arrived in 2014, the flow of players between provinces has increased dramatically and the national team has reaped the benefits. This autumn, Joe Schmidt will pick from the deepest panel of any of his predecessors.

Nucifora argues that the movement has not diminished provincial identity, pointing to the full house at the RDS and at the Leinster v Ulster Champions Cup quarter-final as examples of fans buying in to the new reality.

While he is in charge of central contracts, and is currently in negotiations with Rob Kearney, the remaining outlier from the current crop, he is also assisting Munster to identify the best structure to put in place around the beleaguered Johann van Graan in the wake of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones deciding to leave.

With Rob Howley, Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree all being linked with roles behind the scenes, there is a clear desire for experience to back up the first-time head coach, who received Nucifora’s support yesterday.

And the performance director suggested that Munster may look to bring in a director of rugby to handle the off-pitch burden.

Right now, Van Graan looks isolated, and one wonders where he’ll stand if Nucifora’s vision of the future comes to pass and he’s surrounded by coaches of far more experience and operating with diminished responsibility.

It seems like Munster have found themselves back in the exact same position they were in when they were compelled to appoint Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby as Anthony Foley struggled in the role of the all-powerful head coach.

As Leinster and Leo Cullen can attest, looking for experienced help from elsewhere is nothing to be afraid of but, while Cullen and Foley could call on a rich history from their playing days with their provinces, Van Graan is a long way from home.

However, Nucifora signed off on his new contract in April and endorsed his candidacy to lead yesterday.

On the international front, the performance director is targeting at least a top-four finish in Japan, while he is planning for life after Schmidt, having appointed Andy Farrell.

“Andy’s a different man to Joe and he’s going to do it a different way,” he said. “But one of the reasons that we recruited Andy was because we believe in him as a coach and as a person.

“Andy was super keen because he wanted to work with Joe and he feels that he’s a far better coach for the time he’s had with Joe. He’s going to be put to the test when he takes over post the World Cup, but Joe is in Joe mode at the moment, he is so focused.”

Nucifora is also at the vanguard of discussions around the future of the world game, with reports this week that there is an additional €1bn on the table to entice the Six Nations to join World Rugby’s plans for a ‘Nations Championship’ that would ultimately see relegation introduced to the tournament.

He denied the charge that the union are blocking the proposal.

“There would be some other countries around the world that wouldn’t be drilling down as deep as what we are and they’re looking at what the financials are as they need the money,” he said. “Certainly, we are looking at the financials but we’re also looking at other aspects of how it’s going to affect the game.

“We’re not for or against anything at the moment. But when you do venture into any new opportunity, you want to make sure it’s right because, when you sign up, it’s done.”

The main sources of discontent towards Nucifora are in the club game and the women’s XVs sphere.

Last summer, he presented his vision of an elite division of All-Ireland League rugby to bridge the gap between the amateur and professional games to the clubs but they rejected it.

Instead, he took the provincial A teams to New England for a tournament of limited value. His message to the clubs was the ball is in their court.

“If someone comes back to us with a really viable, feasible solution, we’d listen to it, but we’ve got to get to that point. We can’t wait. We’ve got to keep moving forward,” he said.

Equally, his words on the situation in the women’s XVs game won’t soothe those who feel the senior team is being left behind.

In the year he was appointed, Ireland reached a World Cup semi-final, beating New Zealand en route. Now, they are 10th in the world and facing an uphill battle to qualify for the 2021 World Cup.

While he said there is a plan in place to build towards the qualification tournament in September 2020, Nucifora insisted the focus remains on participation numbers.

His words won’t please everyone, but that’s never appeared to bother him.

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