David Nucifora confident IRFU will keep majority of players they want

When contracts negotiations begin age won’t go against the likes of Johnny Sexton


David Nucifora, the IRFU High Performance Director, has confirmed that “over 50 per cent” of the provinces’ professional playing pool are out of contract at the end of the season. This equates to around 90 or so players whose futures beyond seven months’ time are uncertain.

The IRFU have suspended contract negotiations with all of them pending a recently conducted financial review, with Nucifora saying he hoped to open discussions with the players and their representatives “on the other side of Christmas.”

Whatever else then, he is not Santa Claus.

Among the 90 or so players out of contract are a clutch of Irish internationals who are on central contracts, including Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong and Peter O’Mahony. The union will probably feel that the current market will not result in as many suitors abroad as might previously be the case.

“Like in any market, there’s always risk and I couldn’t sit here and say definitely that we’re going to keep everyone. In the past we’ve managed to keep pretty much most players we’ve wanted to keep.

“The player market around the world is affected,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean to say a player can’t either find a deal that suits him for whatever period of time it is in his career that is somewhere else, that might be an option, but as a general statement, I’d be confident that we’d be able to maintain the majority of players we want to keep.”

For all their financial difficulties due to the effects of the pandemic, it’s also worth noting that the Six Nations’ proposed investment deal with the private equity firm CVC is likely to be concluded imminently, and should be worth around €50-60 million to the IRFU.

Sexton, who was brought back from Racing 92 in a deal struck before Nucifora assumed his current role in 2014 and has since signed another three year deal taking him up to next June, is now 35. But he is still playing excellent rugby and his importance to Leinster and Ireland remains as profound as ever.

“Age probably doesn’t really come into it from our point of view,” said Nucifora. “I mean performance does and I suppose Johnny, like other players, will just be judged on how they are playing and where they are at. We haven’t entered into negotiations with any of the players as you’re aware but as long as the standard of Johnny’s play is up to where it should be then we wouldn’t have any hesitation in speaking to Johnny about continuing.”

There is also the shorter-term to consider as well as planning for the 2023 World Cup, the draw for which takes place on December 14th.

“I wouldn’t say that we’ve got a focus on the 2023 World Cup. I think you actually have to pretty much win what’s in front of you. Test match rugby is very demanding and people demand results and I think the focus has to be on maintaining performance, getting results whilst, at the same time, being able to plan for what things are going to look like down the track.

“So it’s a combination of everything, you can’t forego one to achieve the other. It is a balancing act and obviously something we’re very mindful of.”

Report card

While describing Ireland’s return in the Six Nations as “average” and Sunday’s performance against Georgia as “disappointing”, Nucifora maintained next year’s Six Nations would be a better yardstick.

Confirming that no other person had been considered or interviewed when promoting Farrell to succeed Joe Schmidt after the World Cup, Nucifora explained: “That decision was made many months ago. Throughout the process when we knew Joe was leaving. We decided that Andy was the right person for the job and obviously we’re very happy with that decision.”

That confidence remains undimmed.

“Yeah, absolutely. They’re an experienced coaching team. They’ve been in or around international rugby between them now for many years, either with Ireland or with England or with the Lions. We’ve got an abundance of experience here and if you look around at many other international teams, the years of experience the guys have would stack up against any other coaching group.”

“Once they get some stability and continuity going with the team, then obviously we’ll start to see progress.”

No less than the player contracts, Nucifora admitted that next summer’s projected summer tour, taking in two Test matches in the Pacific Islands, would normally have been signed off by now but due to the pandemic has still to be arranged.

Meantime, the clubs and schools are suffering potentially irreparable damage which could see playing numbers drop, some of the former go out of existence and complicate the supply line to the academies.

“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,” Nucifora admitted. “I know there is a want and a desire to get them back playing. I suppose where that’s applicable to myself is an elite pathway of players and wanting to see those young kids play.”

Citing the many cancelled games at underage level in March and April, it is “really important” for under-age elite competitions to take place next year.

“We’re certainly hoping and planning that way but if it’s not then we’re going to be creative with what we come up with because we can’t afford to be missing out on players not playing the game and slowing down their developmental opportunities.”

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