Appropriately after such a challenging 15 months, especially financially, David Nucifora was notably less bullish than in his previous end-of-year or end-of-season addresses to the media yesterday.
In what the IRFU's performance director admitted had been stressful times, there were no grandiose targets set, nor were there any assurances that centrally contracted players such as Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose will be resigned for the 2023 World Cup, while he himself indicated he might not stay beyond the final year of his contract in a role he has occupied since 2014.
Although the national team and the provinces appear to have reached a plateau of sorts in the Six Nations and Heineken Champions Cup since the highs of 2018, Nucifora maintained that Irish rugby "is in reasonably healthy shape".
“The provincial teams are consistently strong,” he said, adding that they and the national team have remained “there or thereabouts” in the last couple of seasons.
“Have we tapered off? Yes we have, and hopefully the system is supporting the provinces and the national programmes for us to be able to get back up to start winning these things – that is our ambition and intention.”
The Union’s “history” in keeping their frontline players at home, based on maximising their development and supporting them off the field as well as the financial packages, gives him hope that they can continue to do so.
“But, at the end of the day, it’s a negotiation and the players have to make a decision based on what is right for them.”
He also admitted: “Will we lose some players? Quite possibly.”
But even if frontline players were to depart between now and the 2023 World Cup, Nucifora said maintaining the "unwritten rule" in Ireland picking home-based players had to remain in place for, as he put it, the health of the provinces.
“That keeps the provinces strong which keeps Irish rugby strong. If we were to loosen it, that would make the provinces vulnerable to losing a lot more players because they would have the ability to come back and play for Ireland and not necessarily contribute to Irish rugby through their provinces which would have a knock-on, detrimental effect.
"For the IRFU, in this time of financial hardship, would it be a good idea? It probably would to pass on the cost of our top players to English, French or Japanese clubs, but that's not the right thing to do.
“The right thing to do is to support the provinces, keep the game healthy in Ireland and maintain what we are doing.”
As for the clutch of Irish coaches based abroad, Nucifora did not see the imperative in, say, Ronan O’Gara returning to the provincial system as a pathway to coaching the national team.
As “a great supporter of people going offshore and gaining new and different experiences” he said O’Gara had been “really courageous in the moves that he’s made”.
“It may be that he comes back through the provincial system? Maybe but it’s not a requirement.”
By the same token he did not accept that O’Gara was the next Irish head coach in waiting.
“No, you couldn’t say that about anyone at the moment. Not only would it be unfair to the person you nominate but it would be unfair to a lot of other coaches to nominate any particular person.”
Meanwhile, Nucifora also confirmed a report in The Irish Times yesterday that Andy Farrell will be joining the Lions' coaching staff in time for the Test series in South Africa.
“We were always open to the idea that after the tour was finished, if we had a tour, that Andy would go over and join them,” he said. “It’s good for Andy, it’s good for our players that are on the Lions tour. Those things are only a positive, aren’t they?”
Nucifora struck a more conciliatory note than previously regarding the clubs, admitting that their closure hurt everyone; themselves, players, and provinces alike.
"People's engagement and attachment to the game happens through the clubs primarily, so it plays a huge part in everything that we do," he said in welcoming their return in July and hailing the work of Colin McEntee and Peter Smyth, while even accepting that player development in Irish rugby was overly dependent on the schools.
Widening the gap between the clubs and the pro game was “not healthy for either side,” he admitted, adding the alignment “can always get better”.
Acknowledging that it could require “a number of months” to restore playing numbers to anything like their pre-pandemic levels, he had nothing really tangible to offer them other than vowing: “The IRFU are there to support the clubs, as are the provinces to support the clubs. Everything possible will be done to make sure that it stays strong and healthy.”
With a year left on his own contract, untypically Nucifora revealed: “Covid has affected us all in different ways and the stresses and strains that it’s put on everyone. Personally, it’s put different stresses on me, separated from my family [in Australia], which is difficult.”
That said, he would like the IRFU to be “further down the road with the strategies that we’ve put in place” and that there are more things he would like to achieve.
“That’s something that I’ve just got to weigh up over the next 12 months as to whether that’s the right thing to do on a personal front, and on a professional front whether it’s the right thing to do as well, and if the IRFU want me to remain doing what I’m doing. So they’re decisions that I’ll make in the coming months.”