IRFU's David Nucifora defends controversial release clause's in coaches contracts
also warns that major improvements are needed in women’s club game
The first of the Guinness PRO14 derbies next weekend will signal the annual unofficial start of the season but behind the scenes the IRFU have had their hands full for some time as they attempt to solve several off-field matters.
Top of the priority list is appointing a new Munster boss but given David Nucifora's confidence that they are close to doing so, there is no shortage of issues to keep the union occupied for the foreseeable future.
Losing two coaches of the calibre of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber is a blow to the long-term vision that the IRFU initially had when they appointed the South African duo just last year and they are desperate not to lose another in Joe Schmidt when the Kiwi's contract expires at the end of the 2019 World Cup.
A disappointing U-20s World Cup campaign in June was quickly followed by the women flunking at their home World Cup last month, which highlighted how far both teams are behind the best in the world.
The 20s and the women's teams are, officially speaking, currently without a head coach and they were amongst the many issues that Nucifora, the IRFU's performance director, addressed yesterday in a worthwhile 'state of the nation' presentation . . .
Exit clauses in coaches' contracts
Having seen Pat Lam, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber trigger release clauses in their IRFU contracts, Nucifora explained why the stipulations would remain:
"All of the contracts have exit clauses that work for both the employee and employer, that's standard for any contract in sport. Sometimes they work in your favour, sometimes against you.
"There could also be a time when we want to move a coach on and unless you have those sort of clauses in place, you don't have that right.
"But the reality is, even if we wanted to hold onto him (Erasmus), trying to hold a coach at that level who wants to be somewhere else has no merit.
"The coaching market, at the very best of times, is small. When you've got someone as good as that, people are going to be continually trying to work out how to get a piece of that.
"The guy is a South African and was chased to go back and fulfil something they feel they desperately need, so it was a very difficult situation. Are we happy about it? No. Do we accept it? Yes. And we just have to move on and do the best we can."
Schmidt's expiring contract
The IRFU did remarkably well to convince Schmidt to stay on for another World Cup cycle, especially considering the pressure that was put on from his home country. Nucifora knows that they will soon face a similarly tough task to keep him here:
"New Zealand did everything they possibly could to get Joe back that last time, absolutely everything. A lot didn't bubble to the surface but they put a lot a lot of pressure on.
"We were fortunate that he decided to stay here and focus on Irish rugby through to that next World Cup.
"He has been away a long, long time. I suppose that will be a decision that he'll make somewhat make closer to the time. We're not going to be bugging him with two years left on his current contract."
Player welfare in Ireland
In recent weeks, high-profile players have not been shy in voicing their concerns about player welfare issues and in particular the length of the rugby season. England No 8 Billy Vunipola warned that players would potentially go on strike but Nucifora knows that the IRFU's player welfare programme is their major trump card.
"I'll believe it when I see it, that they would take a pay cut! But it does make a statement. That's how the players feel," he said.
"Our best weapon to the greater amount of money that exist in the UK and France is the welfare system. The players won't come out and tell you that but I know when we sit down to negotiate contracts, that's at the forefront of their mind.
"They know we care about them. They know we manage them really well and that makes a difference for us to be able to compete with the bigger cheque books and will continue to do so."
Moving players between clubs
If the IRFU had their way, more players would be transferred between the four provinces for the betterment of the international side and you can understand why but at the same time, it is vital not to dilute the rivalries.
Leinster, for example, currently have a backlog of talented back-rows but Nucifora insisted that no player would be forced to move club:
"At the end of the day, the players make the decisions. It's not up to us really. It's not up to the provinces. The players have to make those choices.
"So if a player is not getting the amount of game time that he wants, then he has got a choice to make.
"The national coaches want to see guys playing. The boys know that and at the end of the day, we are doing everything we can within the system to create that competition which ultimately helps the player make the choice. That's the way it needs to be.
"Maybe that logjam (Leinster back-row) will lead to some movement."
Women's failed World Cup
Ireland's hugely disappointing campaign cost Tom Tierney his job but the bigger picture at play here is even more important. What does the future hold for the 15s game? Is Sevens the priority?
Nucifora responded: "We'll advertise for a coach in the coming weeks to see what's in the market. We've got a lot of work to do in the level beneath international rugby.
"Go and watch the AIL. You saw results like 105-0, that's not great and has to be fixed. We have to build it so it's meaningful and sustainable.
"I just view it as rugby, be it Sevens or 15s, it's all rugby. We have to work out ways to be able to utilise the talent across both paths.
"When England doesn't have the depth to be able to say: 'We're going to focus on both at representative level.' What they have done is actually smart. They have invested their money back into the club competition. I think that's not a bad blueprint to try and follow. If we can get the club game right, then things will flow from that."
Pathway from U-20 to senior
Noel McNamara will soon be confirmed as Nigel Carolan's replacement but there is a major shake-up going on throughout the underage set-ups, according to Nucifora:
"The disappointing (World Cup) result is the reality of where we are.
"The 20s programme is a really just a benchmarking exercise at international level.
"Even though the provincial games are important, for us we're about benchmarking our players and systems at international level.
"We're revamping all of our U-18, U-19 and U-20 coaches. We or the Academy managers don't believe that (playing U-20s interpros) is the best way for them to be stretched or tested."