Nucifora stands his ground on Ruan Pienaar and residency rule
IRFU performance director happy to plough on despite criticism
With Joe Schmidt's future safely secured until the 2019 World Cup, the IRFU's performance director David Nucifora was able to present a pretty positive picture on a rare public appearance yesterday.
His name still provokes a reaction in Ulster after his role in Ruan Pienaar's enforced exit has made him public enemy No 1, but if the Australian noticed or was affected by the criticism, he isn't showing it.
Yesterday was a chance to establish the official line on a range of topics, from Schmidt's new deal to the introduction of private money into the provincial coffers and the thorny role of 'special project' players and high-profile imports like Pienaar in the Irish game.
The Joe show goes on
Schmidt had other options on the table as he mulled over whether to stay with Ireland or move back home to New Zealand, but Nucifora was quietly confident that he would commit to the cause.
"You never know until someone actually puts pen to paper but I was reasonably confident," he explained.
"When another party starts showing interest in him, you always wonder if that's going to turn his head but his commitment here is very strong and he's looking forward to the next few years."
The Australian confirmed that the 51-year-old's contract expires after the World Cup in Japan and is now working to extend the members of the backroom team whose deals come up at the end of next season.
Had Schmidt decided to depart in 2017, the plan was to replace him from within, but the longer time-line means that now won't necessarily be the case.
"We've bought ourselves some time now to sit back and watch how other people perform, so we've got that certainty of a really good, strong group of coaches in Irish rugby," he said.
The Pienaar decision
In August, Ulster released a statement announcing that Pienaar would be leaving the province and made no bones about who was responsible.
The union were forced to issue a statement of their own as a response to the negative reaction to the decision not to allow the retention of a player who has settled in Belfast, contributed hugely to Ulster's cause and for whom they appear to have limited cover.
"It was a fairly clear-cut situation," he said. "Ruan has been a great servant for Ulster Rugby over seven years. Did we think it would be wise for him to stay nine years? No.
"That doesn't fit in with any of our plans. He's done a great job, but it's time to move on. When someone moves on people think, 'We'll never replace him, we'll never find someone to fill that spot' but there's always someone who comes through."
The presence of 'special project' Jamison Gibson-Park at Leinster makes another import unlikely.
"When it comes down to specialist positions it gets even more difficult and you've got to think through it carefully," Nucifora said.
"When we have one of those positions taken up by one ineligible player that presents challenges. When we have two then that's a real problem."
The residency law
Luke Fitzgerald's impassioned feelings on Ireland's use of 'project' players has put the issue on the agenda in this country, while World Rugby are reviewing their laws whether to extend the time-frame it takes a player to qualify through residency (which is currently a period of three years).
Nucifora says a change would not perturb him as he strongly defended the IRFU's stance in playing within the current rules.
"Like every other country, we all operate from the same set of rules," he said. "If it changed, it doesn't really worry me. We'll make do with whatever they are, so if it's three, four, five - two - (years) it doesn't really matter.
"Our focus is on producing Irish players, that's why our strong investment has been in the pathways to keep giving those young players the opportunity.
"When foreign players come up here, we look at how it affects the pathway, succession planning, and a case in point is (Joey) Carbery. Leinster would have loved to have had a foreign replacement when Ian Madigan left but we felt it was right, that they had the depth there and needed to give these boys an opportunity, and from that look at what we've got now, a player of genuine ability who has been given an opportunity, and now he's in the national squad."
One of Nucifora's primary goals is to increase the flow of players between the provinces to ensure as many Irish-qualified players are getting minutes on the field as possible.
Hailing Cian Kelleher's impact since he left Leinster for Connacht, he declared himself "reasonably happy" with how it is going.
"I never expected a great flood of movement, especially with the more senior players," he said.
"It's got to a point now where the younger players see their mates move and get opportunities to do well, it gets them thinking, 'I could do that, I'm good enough to earn a spot here'."
Nucifora warned that "affordability of the game" was his principal concern and interestingly he said that all solutions would be considered, including part-privatisation of the provinces.
Currently, a few of the biggest earners' deals are supplemented by sponsors or private donors, but that could be expanded in future, although central control of players would have to be maintained.
"We've got to keep thinking about ways to keep growing the finances within Irish rugby so that we can stay competitive," he said.
"Everything is being looked at. Absolutely. We would consider everything if we thought that it was workable and achievable to be able to do that.
"There's a fair few different models that we can look at and see if that would suit Irish rugby. Would that work for us?
"I don't think there's anything that we don't consider. It's just a matter of finding what works best."