Sport Rugby

Saturday 18 November 2017

'It's just a matter of building some trust'

Performance director Nucifora heading for uncharted territory in intriguing new role

New IRFU performance director David Nucifora at the Aviva Stadium
New IRFU performance director David Nucifora at the Aviva Stadium
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

David Nucifora's name has circled over Irish rugby for the past nine months and yesterday we finally got to put a face to it.

The freshness in the 52-year-old's features stemmed from the long rest he has been afforded by the delay of his appointment to the performance director's role at the IRFU – time he used to dabble in a little coaching and mostly spend on the beach.

He starts his new role on June 1 in Argentina, and one wonders how five years directing traffic from the top of the Irish rugby tree – not to mention the weather – will affect his sunny disposition.

Union chief executive Philip Browne was at pains to stress how all of the various stakeholders in the game in this country signed up unanimously to the creation of the new position, which is the equivalent of the job Rob Andrew does at the RFU.

His newly-created task is an unprecedented and daunting one and, by stating that Ireland should be targeting World Cup glory, Nucifora wasn't shirking responsibility.

However, the former high performance director with the Australian Rugby Union faces challenges everywhere he looks.

Yesterday, he talked a good game and made a strong first impression, but with the provinces already bracing themselves for his arrival with new ideas to shake the game up, he faces a number of challenges if he is to be successful.

So what are the primary objectives for the new man and what stands in his way to achieving them?

INCREASING FLOW OF PLAYERS BETWEEN THE PROVINCES

One word that repeatedly came up in Nucifora's first press conference was "pathway" as he discussed opening up the route to the top for young Irish players in the professional game.

While provincial loyalty has been one of the game's greatest selling points, the need to move talented players from one professional team to another in order to make sure youngsters are being given an opportunity is high on the IRFU's priority list.

With three Irish provinces reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and occupying the top three positions in the Pro12 league, and one languishing in the nether regions of the league and set for the second tier of Europe next year, there is a clear imbalance, and one suspects Connacht would be the main beneficiaries of increased movement.

But convincing those in charge of the provinces to allow their players to transfer will not be easy without some quid pro-quo – such as the growing desire for Robbie Henshaw to move from Connacht to Leinster – while the youngsters themselves have their own ambitions to make it with their home sides.

"I don't think that players sitting on the sidelines in tracksuits benefits anyone," Nucifora said yesterday.

"You want players playing at the highest level they're capable of as early as possible, and I think that's one thing within the Australian system that has worked very well.

"That's why you see such young players getting out there at international level, because we're forced to push them through."

SHARING INFORMATION BETWEEN THE PROVINCES

"There are no secrets in rugby," Nucifora said during his press conference in a phrase he might revisit when he gets his feet under the desk.

As the direct manager of all four provincial coaches and Joe Schmidt, he is charged with finding common ground and sharing information between the provinces with the national team in mind.

He should probably tune into tomorrow's inter-provincial meeting of Connacht and Munster before he heads back to Australia, to get a taste of what lies ahead.

These family affairs are rarely civil and things have boiled over more than once on and off the pitch in the past 12 months.

In Jonathan Sexton's book, the out-half revealed how Keith Earls had been cagey about revealing information about himself when in national camp in case he gave Munster secrets away and, while Ireland's set-up appears harmonious, the rivalries remain.

Nucifora compared the situation with his previous role in Australia, saying: "The structure there is that the provinces are all autonomous. They each have their own self-interest rules, I suppose, and they're not forced to buy into the national plan. When push came to shove, self-interest prevailed over there.

"I'm not naive enough to think that self-interest here within the teams doesn't exist. I'm sure it does, but what we have to do is work with them.

"We would often sit down around a table and talk rugby amongst all the coaches.

"So it can be done and I think it's just a matter, like anything, of building relationships and trust. It may not happen overnight but that's certainly our aim and intention."

CONVINCING THE COMMITTEE MEN TO STEP BACK

Various committee men helped to create Nucifora's role in a case of turkeys voting for Christmas, but now the men who have run the rugby side of the IRFU will have to take a hands-off role and watch the Australian run things his way.

Browne talked yesterday about the ambition of the 'Plan Ireland' document, which outlines the need for a performance director to install a professional at the head of the professional game.

Now the amateurs need to step back and let him at it.

"Yes, there are going to be areas of tension and that is something that we'll have to manage," Browne said. "I'm confident that David can use his experience to manage those areas."

CONVINCING JOE SCHMIDT TO STAY ON FOR THE LONG HAUL

While the World Cup in 2015 is part of Nucifora's short-term goals, the new man is already looking to Japan in 2019, which is when his current contract comes to an end.

Schmidt's own deal comes to an end in 2016, which seems like a perfect time for the Ireland coach to take over the Lions for their tour to New Zealand before a tilt at coaching in his homeland.

Having stated that Ireland should be competing for World Cups and, given his record of success since he arrived at Leinster, who better to deliver it?

"I know his ability as a coach very well," said Nucifora, who worked with Schmidt at the Auckland Blues.

He added that their relationship would be co-operative rather than a boss/ employee dynamic.

"He'll keep developing the game and the team here and when the times comes to make that decision we'll sit down together with Joe. Someone has to want to be somewhere to really put their heart and soul into it.

"I'm sure that if Joe keeps doing the job that he is doing, I think he has only showed you a little bit of what he is capable of. I'm sure if he wants to stay through to that point of time, he will be welcome."

After leaving the press conference, Nucifora headed for Templeville Road, where he watched the Ireland U-19s comprehensively defeat France.

It was a positive day all round.

He will then head back to Australia and return with his family after taking in the Argentina tour and the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand in June and begin his task.

It won't be easy and it will be interesting to see in 12 months' time whether he'll be wishing he was back on that beach.

Lowdown on David Nucifora

Who is David Nucifora?

A former Australia international, who won two caps between 1991 and 1993, he coached the Brumbies and the Auckland Blues before becoming high performance manager for the ARU.

Where does he fit into the IRFU's hierarchy?

Nucifora is responsible for the leadership and management of the professional game in Ireland. He will report to chief executive Philip Browne, while Joe Schmidt, the four provincial coaches and the technical staff at the union are among those who will report directly to him.

What is the performance director's role?

His duties will include managing the elite player development pathway and succession planning, professional coach development and succession planning, national team performance, provincial team performance, national age grade teams and women's team performance, sport science and medical services, elite referee development and National Professional Game Board (NPGB) and policy development.

Why now?

Following the 2011 World Cup, the IRFU reviewed its structures in what became known as 'Plan Ireland' and decided that the professional side of the game needed to be run by a full-time professional rather than an amateur committee. The job was first advertised last April and Nucifora begins on June 1 on a five-year deal.

Irish Independent

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