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Ulster with backs to wall but all about to change: Nucifora


Big plans: IRFU performance director David Nucifora this week in Sydney
Big plans: IRFU performance director David Nucifora this week in Sydney
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

One of Irish Rugby's key decision makers has said Ulster need more than just a "sticking plaster" in response to their recent struggles.

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Speaking in Australia, where Ireland are currently preparing for their third and deciding Test against the Wallabies on Saturday, the IRFU's High Performance Director David Nucifora said that the power brokers in Dublin were serious about instigating change in the northern province, while reassuring fans that a reversal in fortunes could happen at relative speed.

Under the guidance of Les Kiss and then Jono Gibbes last season, Ulster missed out on the Guinness PRO14 play-offs for a second year in succession but still booked their spot in the 2018/19 Champions Cup thanks to a win over Ospreys in a qualification game.

As well as a huge overhaul in playing staff after the departures of Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Charles Piutau, Ulster will have a new head coach next season with Scotland's forwards coach Dan McFarland replacing the departed Gibbes, a new CEO after Shane Logan announced his decision to walk away earlier this month, and a much-changed backroom team.

Nucifora feels the radical nature of the changes were necessary to see Ulster back on a par with their near neighbours Leinster and Munster.

"We've got to get the most out of everyone," he said of the need to restore the Kingspan Stadium outfit to former glories.

"Everyone has got to pull their weight. This will turn itself around pretty quickly and I would be confident we are not just putting sticking plaster over a few things.

"You can see that we are serious this time about rebuilding with a number of changes that are taking place. If we are going to do it, we're going to do it properly and we need everyone to be a contributor.

"There are some good players coming through their system. Admittedly it's not the volume that's coming out of Leinster but that's probably proportionate to the population. But there is some good talent up there, young talent, and in the last eight weeks of the season you started to see that.

"Some of the young players were given an opportunity finally and showed what they could do. It was great that they managed to win that play-off game and maintain their place in Europe.

!I just think that when we get all of these things ironed out, it will definitely help. It won't be overnight. It's unrealistic to think that it will just turn around on a sixpence. There is a major rebuild going on up there and we need to make sure that we get the right people doing the right jobs.

"If we do that, then the right talent will come through."

Having identified the man they hope is the right coach back in the spring, Ulster have since faced a nervous wait, however, with Scotland still insisting that their forwards coach Dan McFarland will be forced to work out his notice period before arriving at Kingspan Stadium in January.

Having waited over a year for Kiss to eventually arrive as Director of Rugby in November 2015 ahead of his ultimately unsuccessful stint, there is a sense of deja vu among fans as they wait to see just when the former Connacht man will touch down in Belfast, but Nucifora stresses that there is a short-term contingency plan in place.

"If it turns out that that's the way it ends up being, then that's fine. We'll just deal with that," he said.

"We do have a bit of a plan B in place if that's the case, and we'll just wait and see what the Scottish Rugby Union decide to do with Dan probably after the (Scottish) tour.

"Obviously we would like, and Ulster would like, for him to be there at the start of the season, but if he can't be, well then we'll accept that and we've got something that we'll do to support Ulster.

"Probably just some help for the coaches up there. I don't think we'll have clarity on that until the tours are finished.

"They (the SRU) are not asking for money, no one has asked for money," he revealed.

"At the moment they just want to utilise his services.

"Do I think it will be January? No I don't, I think that's the worst case scenario. I think there will be a resolution before then so I am not concerned that it's going to be January.

"There are lots of things going on in Ulster. There is a major rebuild under way. The coaching team that remains has only been in place for a year so really they're still new.

"Obviously Dan is coming in as the head coach, there's a new CEO going to be appointed, there's a new head of strength and conditioning, a new head of physiotherapy that we are in the throes of appointing up there so it is a total rebuild that's going on and I think that's exciting. That's positive."

It does not appear, however, that Nucifora sees an imported out-half as part of that rebuild.

With Paddy Jackson having had his contract revoked, the province have been searching for an alternative at No.10 ever since but have yet to find an experienced complement to Johnny McPhillips, a situation exacerbated when Leinster's Joey Carbery opted instead for a move to Munster.

A move for Springbok Elton Jantjies has already been blocked, with Nucifora still hunting for an Irish-qualified option, possibly currently playing outside the four provinces.

"Our first option is always to find an Irish solution because we need to make sure the system is strong with Irish options," Nucifora said.

"The Elton Jantjies thing that was brought up, it didn't make any sense because we want to try and find an Irish solution.

"Yes, we hoped that Joey might take up that opportunity. It didn't pan out that way because that was the player's choice, but was Jantjies the right option?

"For example, he's going to be playing in the World Cup no doubt, he's going to be away for large chunks of time. South Africa we knew were recalling their players. At least we've got a better line of communication now with the South African coach. We are aware of a few things. So that didn't really make any sense," he said.

"Going forward for them, we still hope that there is an Irish option for them that we are working on, but would we consider a foreigner to help them if we had to?

"Yeah, we would, if it made sense, absolutely. But our preference would be to find a good Irish alternative if we can do that."

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