Can David Nucifora get the Irish rugby juggernaut back on track?

Trying times as IRFU’s high performance director gives state of the union address

IRFU performance director David Nucifora has said that it will take the IRFU "years to claw back" the financial losses the association has faced due to empty stadiums during the Covid-19 pandemic. Video: VOTN

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Since becoming the IRFU’s high performance director in April 2014, David Nucifora has afforded the media end-of-year and end-of-season state of the union addresses, but never before has it been in such trying times, as will be the case on Wednesday.

For much of the first five years of his tenure Irish rugby – with Joe Schmidt’s Team Ireland atop the pyramid – enjoyed unprecedented success. The Six Nations title, won in 2014, was retained in 2015 and, although the Irish team exited the 2015 World Cup at the quarter-final stages against Argentina when heavily depleted, there followed the two historic wins over the All Blacks in Chicago and Dublin along with the Grand Slam of 2018 as well as other landmark wins over South Africa and Australia.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Irish rugby as hard as anyone, with the IRFU posting a €35.7 million loss in its 2019/20 accounts

Leinster also won the Heineken Champions Cup in 2018 while dominating the Guinness Pro14, in which Connacht also enjoyed their breakthrough success in 2016.

However, following on from Nucifora personally upping the ante by setting a first semi-final as a minimum requirement for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Ireland fell short when beaten heavily in the quarter-final by the All Blacks. Since the title of 2018, Ireland have finished third in the Six Nations for three successive seasons, as they did in the one-off Autumn Nations Cup, and while Leinster have extended their hold over the Pro14 for four successive seasons, they again fell short in Europe this season, as did Munster, Ulster and Connacht.

Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit Irish rugby as hard as anyone, with the IRFU posting a €35.7 million loss in its 2019/20 accounts, and as a result there have been voluntary redundancies and pruning across the organisation.

Contract negotiations

Despite spending much of 2020 in his native Australia, Nucifora is able to point to the largely successful round of contract negotiations with players whose deals would have expired as of Tuesday. The vast bulk of provincially contracted players re-signed and, of the seven tied to central contracts, Nucifora negotiated new deals with Keith Earls, Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong and Peter O’Mahony, the only exception being the retiring CJ Stander, and, despite some speculation to the contrary, that was not a financially driven outcome in any way.

That said, Furlong only signed a one-year deal, akin to Sexton, Healy and Earls as well as many under provincial contracts who will be hopeful of better offers before the end of next season. But no matter how he dresses it up it would have been incumbent upon Nucifora and the IRFU to tie down such a valuable asset as Furlong until at least the 2023 World Cup.

How feasible will it be for the IRFU to maintain its home-only policy, whereby players who move abroad are not considered for the Irish team?

All in all, akin to the likes of Man City, Chelsea and PSG in football, the French clubs especially, as well as their English counterparts, look comparatively ring-fenced financially from the full effects of the pandemic, not only due to the presence of private benefactors but also in light of the Top 14’s new €454.4 million, four-year deal with Canal+.

With Garry Ringrose among the next batch of frontline international players who will also be out of contract before the next World Cup, it will be interesting to hear how Nucifora hopes he can entice them to stay.

Moving forward, how feasible will it be for the IRFU to maintain its home-only policy, whereby players who move abroad are not considered for the Irish team? It would be interesting to hear if Nucifora is quite so bullish about the need for Ireland to reach the 2023 World Cup semi-finals given a brute of a draw; without one quarter-final in three attempts, will that make his tenure a failure?

Grinding halt

Perhaps most damagingly of all, the last 15 months have effectively brought both the Irish schools and club game to a grinding halt. At last December’s media briefing, this reporter asked Nucifora what was being done to keep the club and schools games afloat and he said: “I’ve had my hands full with the professional game and I haven’t really been across where that’s at with the club and school games.”

This went down like a lead balloon with the clubs, and compounded the rift between Nucifora and them when they failed to agree to his proposed revamping of the Energia All-Ireland League (AIL). Nucifora in turn signed off on the one-off Cara Cup involving provincial A sides playing in the USA at the end of the 2018-19 season, undermining the finale to the AIL season in what was widely interpreted as a vindictive two fingers to the clubs.

The effective closure of the schools and the clubs games, and Irish rugby’s overt dependence on the former, has in turn been compounded by the lost year of under-age international games.

So, while extolling the virtues of the sevens programme and citing the examples of Hugo Keenan and Will Connors, it would be interesting to hear how Nucifora envisages making up for lost ground in this development pathway.

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