David Nucifora’s shuffling of deck has revealed some trump cards

IRFU high performance director has had his doubters but ends year very much in credit

 

The Sopranos opened an episode once with Frank Sinatra crooning It Was A Very Good Year as Tony and the crew emptied a brown paper bag of cash on the pool table in the Bing. The montage included the FBI rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic as other mobsters experienced some, eh, difficulties.

All the while New Jersey’s most organised business kept motoring along.

David Nucifora ended 2016 with a sanitised media briefing. One reporter asking questions with clips delivered via Twitter.

Nobody complained. Too much credit in the bank.

There were many problems facing Irish rugby this year but, for the most part, they were adequately solved.

It started ominously. There was outcry when Nucifora, in year three of a five-year contract as the IRFU performance director, a role invented to modernise the professional game, took the month of January off to return to his native Australia.

Major player contracts still needed to be negotiated. Agents couldn’t get hold of the 54-year-old.

This seemingly bad business looks pretty smart now. Only Ian Madigan and Marty Moore set sail.

Madigan gambled on Bordeaux-Begles over a deeply troubled-looking Munster on the belief that Ireland’s outhalf stocks were light enough that they would bend their policy on overseas players and keep recalling him so long as he kicked his goals.

Madigan toured South Africa due to Johnny Sexton’s shoulder surgery in the summer but was clearly behind Ulster’s Paddy Jackson in the new pecking order, only seeing brief game time off the bench in Port Elizabeth.

Then came Joey Carbery. Problem solved.  

Moore remains a significant loss, having signed a three-year deal with Wasps, as Irish rugby can hardly afford to lose a 25-year-old tighthead prop with Test-match experience, regardless of how injury-prone he is. It’s a black mark on the Nucifora report card as Michael Bent starts for Leinster against Ulster this afternoon.

But “the Noose” can point to Wexford’s finest, Tadhg Furlong, flinging All Black legends off his back in Chicago.

Marty who? Marty Moore. Just ask Denis Buckley after the Connacht loosehead received a scrum clinic this month.

But, not unlike Carbery’s rise, Moore’s departure encourages Jeremy Loughman to follow the path laid out by Jack McGrath, who has usurped Cian Healy in the pecking order.

Simmering nicely

Loughman is on the bench against Ulster alongside the humongous 20-year-old Andrew Porter. Finlay Bealham and John Ryan are also simmering nicely.

Everyone else, from Rory Best to Simon Zebo, has re-signed. 

Jamie Heaslip recently proved, once again, why he is Best’s vice-captain. Heaslip, who has had a very, very good year and was fully deserving of his nomination for world player of the year, felt it appropriate to negotiate with the IRFU and Leinster live on BT Sport. Good old Jamie said that at 33 he would not be averse to seeing out his career abroad.

Jack Conan would have no problem with that. Neither would CJ Stander.

If 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that the jersey will always be filled. Even after Johnny Sexton. The passing range JJ Hanrahan displayed against Leinster earlier this month is due back in Munster next season.

Meanwhile out west, Bundee Aki looked a sure bet to fly the nest. He tweeted as much, but Connacht found a way to keep their star turn. Joe Schmidt and Nucifora indirectly assisted.

If Aki stays fit, he will carry Ireland over many a gainline, and offload to Garry Ringrose or Robbie Henshaw thereafter, all the way to the 2019 World Cup in Japan.  

In this post O’Driscoll-D’Arcy era, the centre positions are well stocked.

That brings us to the Jaco Taute scenario. Perhaps, in time, Nucifora’s best business will be the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as Munster director of rugby. Along with Jacques Nienaber as his defence coach, the 36-times capped Springbok has helped to re-fill Thomond Park in the wake of an awful, traumatic period in the province’s proud rugby history.

After Anthony Foley’s passing, Munster began to win again. Only Welford Road and Leicester’s equally proud reputation slowed their march into a home Champions Cup quarter-final. But they sit at the top of the Pro12.

Nucifora has, time and again, given Erasmus whatever he needs to succeed. Not unlike allowing Pat Lam flood the Connacht squad with journeyman Kiwis, many of whom will qualify for Ireland. It was that on-field intellect, combined with quality coaching and the fast-tracking of homegrown talent, that delivered a Pro12 title to Galway last May.

It remains a fantastic achievement. That, and Ireland toppling of all three Southern Hemisphere giants, happened on Nucifora’s watch. And James Ryan’s under-20s reaching the World Cup final.

A very good year.

Incensed

But the decision to retain Taute – a brilliant, powerful centre who is being ignored by Springbok selectors – could have only incensed Ulster and Leinster.

Especially Ulster. It remains hard to see how the decision to deny Ruan Pienaar a third contract to finish out his career in Belfast – where it was generally accepted he was improving the skillset of everyone around him – will benefit Irish rugby.

“It is vital for both Ulster and Irish rugby that the province develop indigenous talent in this position and an extension of Ruan’s contract would further prevent Irish-qualified Ulster players from maximising their developmental potential and becoming stars for both Ulster and Ireland,” said Nucifora via email in September.

Bottom line: Ulster have not been producing scrumhalves. They snapped up two nines not good enough for the Leinster academy. Paul Marshall is 31. Pienaar is a fundamental part of Ulster. Much like Isa Nacewa in Leinster.

“I wanted to stay and I know Ulster Rugby did everything it could to keep me in Belfast,” said Pienaar.

Clear conflict. Ulster even said they had the resources to keep him.

But Nucifora drew a line in the sand.

Sand not cement. When Francis Saili – Munster’s attempted version of Pienaar – wrecked his shoulder during preseason Nucifora agreed to the short-term Taute loan from Western Province.

Saili finally returned against Leinster on St Stephen’s Day but Taute is also staying. It is highly likely that instead of Rory Scannell wearing number 12, Taute and Saili will be waiting for possession outside Tyler Bleyendaal come the crunch moments in the season ahead.

But someone somewhere will be injured. 

“It is delicate situation, it’s a balancing act to try and get it right,” said Nucifora during his Christmas address to the nation. “Each case is slightly different. What we try and do with the foreign players, we try and see where and how they can add value to the provinces. But there always has to be a finite time on it because with four teams we have to be conscious that we have that pathway for our own players to come through.”

Ulster will have to rapidly fast-track a young scrumhalf or sign another foreigner. It still doesn’t add up but Les Kiss is a resourceful man. He will have to be.

Promote from within

Leinster are not without their gripes. They lost Luke Fitzgerald and then Niall Morris to injury-enforced retirement before the season kicked off. They were given one option, to promote from within, which has worked out nicely as Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin fill the wings on New Year’s Eve.

There remain mixed messages coming from Lansdowne Road but as Tony Soprano once remarked to Christopher Moltisanti: “You don’t gotta love me but you will respect me.”

Nucifora, when pressed at a round-table media gathering earlier this year, did admit his concerns about Leo Cullen’s lack of experience. Cullen accepted the criticism and did something about it. Graham Henry’s brief presence during preseason was a start but Kurt McQuilkin’s return to New Zealand was immediately turned into a positive as it freed up space for a coach with exposure to the highest echelons of the game.

Stuart Lancaster, along with Andy Farrell for Ireland, is clearly rehabilitating his career post England’s miserable 2015 World Cup campaign.

There is also another side to the Taute argument. Munster owe the IRFU €9 million for the rebuilding of Thomond Park.

Ulster, in contrast, have repaid their IRFU loan in full for the transformation of Ravenhill into Kingspan Stadium.

“One of our provinces is experiencing financial difficulty and one of the main reasons for this is poor match results,” said IRFU honorary treasurer Tom Grace at the AGM in July. “It is no secret that the increased revenues available to French and English clubs are having a serious inflationary impact on player remuneration.”

Munster gate receipts dropped by €2 million from one season to the next. That has already shown a marked improvement this season since the Glasgow match in October. And Taute has played a significant part in that revival. So he gets to stay.

This has been a very good year. The great French and English club takeover of European rugby doesn’t seem as likely after the opening rounds of Champions Cup.

Global market place

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne also said in July: “The provinces simply can’t go out into the global market place and expect to pick up world-class players with the budget that they have. They have got to live within their budgets [each province did get an extra €250,000 for wages], which is why it is better value for us to invest in the pathway. To produce our own players. We simply can’t compete with what is happening in France.”

But they can be clever about it. Some of the best players in the world are playing in Ireland because they see the value in taking a lesser pay cheque for a better environment to play rugby. A more human environment as Anthony Foley said when insisting Munster would honour Bleyendaal’s contract despite neck surgery.

“He’s not a piece of meat, it’s a human being and that is what Munster is about, it’s about the people.”

Players hear that.

Problems do remain. The spectre of rugby’s greatest threat refuses to go away. Connacht reported 22 injuries this week. Half their squad. Leinster are down to 10 or 11 fit backs.  

Amidst all this, the IRFU got full support from the two governments on this island and the GAA to deliver a compelling World Cup 2023 bid. Reel in that marlin and Nucifora five-year period in charge will look very special.

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