Raising our game involves trip into minefield
David Nucifora knows exactly how hard his new job is going to be, writes Brendan Fanning
A little spring cleaning a few days ago turned up an interesting document, an appropriate find in the week when the IRFU broke new ground in appointing its first Performance Director. The document in question dates back to 1992, three years before the game went professional – a state of affairs that caused consternation in this part of the world – and an age before the IRFU warmed to the idea of a new era.
It told the story of how one of the union's seasoned timbers got lopped off, and pushed down river. The man in question was Roly Meates, a former Leinster and Ireland coach, who was your prototype union committee blazer: a solid, middle-class professional; conservative by nature.
A year earlier, rugby had celebrated its second World Cup, an altogether more glitzy gig than the first effort, in New Zealand, but not everyone in the house was happy. A variety of circumstances had combined to make the game face up to the idea of rewarding the players financially. What emerged was not pay for play, rather a scheme whereby commercial interests could hitch their wagon to the participating teams and the squad members could pick up a few bob.
It was small-time stuff. Each country's scheme had to be approved by the IRB to ensure it stayed within the guidelines on amateurism. Ireland's was less rewarding than England's – naturally enough – which had passed muster. But the IRFU prevaricated and stalled and forced the players into militant mode which culminated with a threatened strike literally a few days before they played Australia in the World Cup quarter-final in Lansdowne Road.
Coincidentally, David Nucifora was down the corridor in the Wallaby dressing room that day, as reserve hooker to Phil Kearns.
Meates had been chairman of the IRFU's amateur status sub-committee and was losing the will to live with colleagues who were dragging their heels. That changed his relationship with some of those men. A year later, he gave an interview to this newspaper in which he was constructively critical of the coaching pathway that obtained in Ireland at the time. That was the opportunity to remove him, and they took it.
If Meates hadn't been turfed it's likely we would have made the transition from amateur to professional with more speed and less pain than has been the case. And the likes of David Nucifora would have been fronting the media, as they like to say in his native Australia, a lot sooner than last week.
It is likely too that the scene which would have greeted our first Performance Director would have looked a good deal different. Changing that complexion however will, for Nucifora, not be so much a steep climb as a walk through a minefield.
Let's start with the man himself. He is a 52-year-old Queenslander, steeped in the game. That pedigree was enhanced by marriage when he got hitched to the daughter of Dave Clark, a prominent figure in Australian rugby history who at one point headed up the rugby programme at the Australian Institute of Sport.
We remember Clark from a coaching weekend in Belfast's Europa Hotel in 1988. Organised by the late Jimmy Davidson, it featured a handful of visionaries from around the world, including Clark, who was then working with the Queensland Rugby Union. His paper had one theme: talent identification – the earlier the better. And what was his son-in-law saying in Dublin last week?
"We don't have the playing depth in Australia, so you're forced to develop people very early and get the best out of them as quickly as you can," Nucifora said. "And that starts at a young age. At times it doesn't work but we've also had a lot of success at that, so I'd like to think that it's possible to be able to give coaches the confidence and players the confidence to perform at a higher level at a younger age if they're ready."
Nucifora was a good player and a good coach. His Test caps would number more than two had his time not come before tactical replacements arrived. And as a coach his highest profile years were spent over eight seasons between the Brumbies (three) and the Blues, taking the Australian side to one Super Rugby title and one runner-up spot, while the highlight of a difficult period in Auckland was a semi-final spot. That's where he hooked up with Joe Schmidt, his backs coach for three years there.
The political bit came next, when Nucifora was appointed head of high performance in the Australian Rugby Union. Opinion Down Under is mixed on how he fared in that role. He had the reputation of being a bit of a hard-ass on salaries and contracts, and inevitably he had run-ins with the provincial coaches – as he will in Ireland – but enjoyed the support of then ARU boss John O'Neill, who has been one of the most influential figures in the professional era in that country.
"O'Neill backed him big time but I'm not sure that it delivered all the results they wanted," a senior Australian source said last week.
"But he's been through the New Zealand system and the maze of Australia so I'd say he'll bring something to the table in Ireland."
Already the IRFU has laid down some serious cash at Nucifora's table, for having taken the scenic route to this appointment there was a scary feel to the prospect of pulling up another empty net. If, for example, either of those old London Irish housemates Conor O'Shea or David Humphreys wanted the gig, it would have been theirs. Clearly neither is finished frying current fish, but even if that meal had been eaten you suspect their political nous would have steered them away from this bit of afters.
It's a different story for Nucifora though. We understand the IRFU have been paying him a retainer since before Christmas while they waited to see how the war in Europe panned out. Now that peace has been declared, it's all systems go. Perhaps he used the interim to research the landscape to see where some of the mines are buried? "I spent it on the beach," he said. "I enjoyed another summer!"
Well, summer at this end of the world tends to be a bit different, so Nucifora should dress accordingly. Not only will he need protection from the elements but also from some of the natives.
"He's fairly stubborn and he won't suffer fools," said a man who dealt with him when he was in the ARU. "He's thick skinned. Either you'll like him or hate him with a passion."
There has been a feeling about this job that the first man in might get a kicking, and that his successor might benefit from the pioneering and painful work of having gotten people onside.
Clearly the IRFU think differently, and have waded in with a five-year contract. This reminds us of the day in 1997 when Eddie Coleman unveiled Brian Ashton as Ireland coach on a six-year deal. It ended five years early.
Nucifora does seem to be made of sterner stuff though, and unlike Ashton is going into this with his eyes wide open. He will understand, for example, the difficulties when you move players from one region to another, as he did in stressful circumstances when trying to build some depth in the newly formed Western Force, and he will realise that if the union don't get the right bodies in the right seats on the new Professional Game Board then his experience will be Ashtonesque.
According to chief executive Philip Browne, that body won't be set up until between three to six months after Nucifora starts officially, in June. "It would be ludicrous to change all the structures before David has had a chance to settle in," he said last week.
From this we infer that the settling-in period would be a useful time for the new man to identify those he expressly doesn't want on the PGB. Nucifora will be expected to implement the policies determined by that group, which is planned to include two independent members (from outside rugby). He won't have a vote, but he will have a say. That relationship needs to be a very good one if he is to have any chance of delivering on the aspiration outlined last week.
"You have to aim to the highest level," Nucifora said. "Everything is achievable, so winning World Cups is achievable. You have to think like that. If you don't think like that then you may as well pack it in. I think it's really important that we have that and create that sense of belief."
Before he gets within an ass's roar of that level, he'll need to look at where we get our players from at a young age and how that system can be expanded and improved. This is not just a numbers game, but one with a specific goal: if Nucifora is to convince the provinces that Team Ireland is the sexiest game in town then he will need to give them alternatives when the big guns are away in green. And that means more bodies, fit and skilled and focused.
Roly Meates probably could have told him as much at the post-match gig in Lansdowne Road in 1991, for while he was old school he had a good handle on the future.
The IRFU weren't too good at listening back then. We'll see what they're like now.
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