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Gordon D’Arcy: David Nucifora does not believe he is accountable to the Irish public

Australian’s attitude to the press grates with euphoria of 2018 now just a distant memory

Amidst the euphoria of beating the All Blacks in Chicago four years ago, David Nucifora might well have glanced down from Trump Tower at the alchemy Theo Epstein had conjured for The Cubs and thought: 'I can achieve something similar with Irish rugby.'

The World Series is a lofty ambition but over that heady weekend in 2016 anything seemed possible.

Epstein – who also removed ‘Curse of the Bambino’ hanging over The Boston Red Sox – recently walked away from Chicago, nine years into an executive role that he believes should never exceed a decade.

“It became really clear that we’d be facing some significant long-term decisions this winter, decisions with long-term impacts,’’ Epstein explained. “Those types of decisions are really best made by somebody who’s going to be here for a long time, not just for one more year. Jed Hoyer clearly is that person.’’


The cleanest of transition allows the 46-year-old Epstein to leave a stunning legacy of high performance in baseball.

Six years ago Nucifora arrived on Lansdowne Road, into a position essentially created to suit his expertise as an overseer of the island’s professional structures, with a plan to apply to Irish rugby what sort of worked in Australia and New Zealand.

There are way too many outstanding questions about what Nucifora is doing for Irish rugby’s long term future and his refusal to answer them this week should not be accepted by anyone who truly cares about the game.

Plenty of the issues evident in 2013 are still on the agenda.

What happened to plans to deliver a three-strong depth chart in every position, especially after Ireland were so badly exposed at the 2015 World Cup? Put it another way, why are injury numbers off the charts again?

The Monday press conference after playing Georgia was a strategic decision that backfired spectacularly.

Unbowed, the Sevens programme sounds like Nucifora’s solution to almost every problem. Hugo Keenan and Will Connors are the examples he rolled out but that suggests neither player would have come through the ranks regardless.

Alarm bells

What’s happening with the club and school scene, David?

Answer: I am too busy running the professional game.

That alone should send alarm bells ringing through the grassroots.

Who has seen last year’s World Cup review, David?

Answer: “It was distributed to the people who needed to read it.”

Ok, who?

Answer: “People within Irish rugby who were going to benefit from it.”

If anyone has laid eyes on this sacred document, drop us an email (we are presuming it exists).

A media strategy that essentially sticks two fingers up at anyone who asks a question Nucifora does not have an answer to is bad business for everyone involved.

As much as Nucifora's refusal to discuss player contracts with agents is about stark financial realities, it is also a negotiation tool

What about the “performance anxiety” cited as a major issue in Japan (and so obviously still in existence)?

Answer: “It has been addressed.”

No detail followed because Nucifora does not believe he is accountable to the Irish public. This is clear as day in his attitude.

What about France 2023, David, how do Ireland avoid being quarter-final cannon fodder yet again?

Answer: “As we get closer to 2023 I’ll come back to you and let you know what the score will be in the semi final.”

Is the World Cup semi-final still a goal?

Answer: “I’d like to get to the final.”

This was delivered with a laugh. Accountability has to matter.

The Nucifora plan to fill the power vacuum created by foreign players, CJ Stander and Bundee Aki in particular, now the recruitment via residency is over, remains very light on detail. Essentially, he is doubling down on the granny rule coupled with seeping Sevens rugby into GAA heartlands and untapped populations like west Dublin.

How exactly will this be done?

Answer: Introducing Sevens to schools “that don’t play rugby as a fixed sport.”

The areas and schools that will be targeted remain a mystery.

Maybe 2018 was as good as it is going to get

Nucifora answered the questions he felt like answering perhaps because he does not consider himself answerable to anyone, which begs the question: who in the IRFU does he report to and what are his key performance indicators?

People deserve to know.

Nucifora was hired as the panacea for professional issues beyond the scope of amateur committee men. The turkeys voted for Christmas but, right now, the former Wallaby hooker appears to be causing as many problems as he is solving.

What, for example, does success look like for him?

Maybe 2018 was as good as it is going to get. Maybe the Six Nations Grand Slam is Ireland's world series of baseball because if we judge Nucifora's tenure on World Cups, by his own yardstick, it has been a failure.

All of this makes me very worried for the long term future of Irish rugby as we enter a period where every decision will have a massive impact 10 years from now.

Epstein realised he was not the man to guide The Chicago Cubs out of the pandemic and into the great beyond. The media enquired about Nucifora’s plans for the future and he responded by showing everyone how evasive he can be on a Microsoft Teams call.


As much as Nucifora’s refusal to discuss player contracts with agents is about stark financial realities, it is also a negotiation tool. He is very skilled in this regard and deserves credit for keeping all the players Irish rugby needed – besides Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan who both decided to leave but can only be wondering how many caps they left on the table – but, currently, 50 per cent of the country’s playing staff have no financial security beyond July.

That’s a lot of stressed families at Christmas. It is also half our national squad heading into the 2021 Six Nations feeling like they are playing for their livelihood - never a wise means of motivation – while getting their agents to find viable alternatives abroad. Just in case.

The Ben Healy to Glasgow story is only the start of players reacting to Nucifora's silence. Healy's next contract should not be a negotiation, it must be an investment in his rare talent. Otherwise, the Scots will pull off the granny rule with a young Munster outhalf.

Pandemic or not, Healy needs to be paid to market value.

Nucifora either refused to provide a clear plan during Monday’s press conference or he doesn’t have one. To my mind, the first is equally as troubling as the second.

Where are we going David and are you coming with us?

Some clarity about the IRFU’s medium term plans would be a sign of actual leadership. So long as the public is denied access to stadiums the drain on finance will be immense but Nucifora, by denying supporters access to any sort of roadmap, is causing more harm than good.

Under his direction, the union decided to appoint the national coaching team via a continuity plan. Attack coach Mike Catt is the only person who entered the system from abroad and now we have the entire England coaching ticket from 2015 working with Ireland, Munster and Leinster.

Farrell is correct about Twickenham being a 'priceless' experience. Creativity under intense pressure is what great rugby teams are all about

Stuart Lancaster has proved a superb hire by Leo Cullen, who four years ago was the problem child for Nucifora as Pat Lam, Les Kiss and Rassie Erasmus appeared to be improving the other provinces. Nucifora was unable to retain two of the three and he took ruthless action with Les during a coordinated rebuilding process in Ulster.

In theory, coaching continuity makes sense. Doubts are beginning to be raised – Shane Horgan has made some cutting remarks – but there is no need to panic on this front just yet. Andy Farrell’s team of coaches will get a pass for the shambolic set piece, scrum and rucking throughout the Autumn Nations Cup if Scotland are overcome.

How many passes does Nucifora get? Four more years could leave Irish rugby in a deeper hole than before he landed.

The Acid Chamber Revisited

The hardest thing to do in any walk of life is to admit that something is not working. The pressure on winning against Scotland this Saturday is immense, and that burden is shared across the whole group.

When we see Ireland’s attack reverting to lone rangers carrying ball into a wall of bigger defenders – be they English or Georgians – we can state with certainty that this team is in a deep transition. I wrote before about players needing to respond to cues and prompts under pressure, but the default actions from Joe Schmidt’s time are still visible.

Pace and tempo feel like the only way out of the current mess. The last few outings have looked like a ‘game play’ developed during lockdown that wasn’t fit for purpose inside the acid chamber of Twickenham.

I do not believe Andy Farrell has a single issue with communication so I am led to believe this new(ish) coaching team have designed the wrong tactical approach for the players at their disposal.

Play a style that suits the players. Not the other way round

Farrell is correct about Twickenham being a “priceless” experience. Creativity under intense pressure is what great rugby teams are all about but if the coaches attempted to replicate Maro Itoje’s behaviour at training, a full blooded session would result in punches and injury.

Let’s put the best pack onto the field: Andrew Porter, Ronán Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Will Connors and Caelan Doris with Cian Healy, Ryan Baird and a fully charged Dan Leavy off the bench.

Ireland would be super mobile but still lightweight. I bet even that eight would struggle against England, France and Georgia under the current tactical approach.

Eddie Jones had Ireland sussed after scoring two tries off a counter attack and cross field kick. The rest of the match was Eddie laughing from the stand: 'Here, scummy Irish, have the ball, Maro and the boys will hammer you backwards all day long.'

If the one off runners reappear against Scotland this Saturday then the coaches have got both the strategy and selection wrong. Now is the time to show some value from a marathon camp in Carton House (if those walls could talk). Fix the fundamentals before delivering a game with pace and tempo. Play a style that suits the players. Not the other way round.