Friday 20 April 2018

Search is on to see if Ireland's got talent

David Nucifora is determined for players to flourish in the game

'Being an Australian, Nucifora (p) is focused on the mantra that early identification is half the battle'
'Being an Australian, Nucifora (p) is focused on the mantra that early identification is half the battle'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Every time you go to Twickenham you come away with a sense of the size of it all. Not just the stadium, but the engine driving the game in England itself. Tickets in what is the biggest rugby constituency in the world are very hard to get. And those lucky enough to be there on match day come across like a vital cog in a massive wheel. And then there is us, literally struggling to make up the numbers.

With over two million people playing the game, at all levels, across the water, you get a sense of scale. The comparable figure in Ireland is 172,000, from tots to vets, in both genders. So when we make the trip minus a few key human components, this kind of stuff raises its head higher than normal.

For David Nucifora, the spin last weekend was a reminder of exactly this. Since taking up the job of IRFU performance director last year his name has surfaced mostly in connection with fire fighting. A high-profile player would be in the frame for an English or French club; Nucifora would have to buy another wet blanket and smother the flames. Even allowing for accidents happening, fire prevention would make more sense.

"We have to have another strategy there," he says. "The short-term strategy is to do what we need to do to keep our players here, but the finances need to be invested, not to the top end of players, but now in the players in the pathway to bring them through in order to cater for that. Our greatest risk is not doing this. If we don't do this and we keep losing players at the top end because we don't have the funds to match what's coming from the UK and France - and I don't know how much money is going to keep coming into the game there - but if it keeps coming we will be in trouble. So we have to have this operating at the same time as we're trying to manage the short term."

Optimising the production route is not a new theme in this country. 'From 6 to 6 Nations' is the title on the pathway used by the IRFU to map the route from mini rugby to the bright lights of the senior international game. The current climate has brought added urgency, however. And with a uniquely powerful figure now planning the way ahead, Nucifora is hot to trot.

Being an Australian, he is focused on the mantra that early identification is half the battle. So his target zone is the 16-20 age group of players, and his market can be broken down into three groups: 1) those already on track via the fee-paying schools, which, like Australia, have been the traditional source of Test players; 2) those already playing either in non-frontline schools, or playing youth rugby in their clubs; 3) those not involved at all.

His view on the first category is pretty much to leave well enough alone. This will suit the schools nicely, but it's a mistake. Because historically it's been the only route into town doesn't mean it shouldn't be overhauled if that's what's required. Evidently the audit to see if that's what is needed has been surpassed by the other two categories on his list: the middle order schools, and clubs; and the unexplored territories.

Nucifora's idea is to have three years of full-on support for the kids once they're identified at 16, so that when they come out of school and into the benchmark of Six Nations and Junior World Championship at under 20 they will be further down the track than is currently the case.

The human resources for running this will come largely from existing stocks: those employed in the provincial academies. Basically there is a cohort here who will have to work a bit harder, he suggests. In addition there will be a talent manager appointed in each province whose role will be to liaise between the bottom end of the pro game, and the new programme running below it, which will be supported by what Nucifora describes as the "wrap-around" services of strength and conditioning, nutrition, and so on.

His biggest challenge in the youth game is to come up with a decent competition structure. Currently that pathway is hobbled by the fitful nature of the calendar. Depending on the age group there might be games one week; then maybe nothing for a few weeks after that. As a development and retention exercise it's the equivalent of pushing a rock uphill.

If Nucifora's calling card is successful though, it might have the benefit of adding more bodies to this area. Then it's a question of what game they want to play, for sevens will be his means of getting in the door.

"I'm definitely convinced it's the access point," he says. "For people who love rugby - for some of them - it is the complex nature of the game that they enjoy. But for others the strength and beauty of the game sometimes is also its weakness. It's so damned complicated that it's bloody hard to coach well, and it's damned hard to understand. So people turn away from it. So to have this vehicle, that conveniently happens to be an Olympic sport, is too good an opportunity not to utilise for people to join the game."

This summer in Rio will be Nucifora's shop window. If everything goes according to plan then school principals will be happy to let his emissaries in the door, and the kids will literally take the ball and run with it. The interesting bit will be where the journey takes them, for there are a few forks on the road.

The first is to continue or give up. The second is that they stick to the short game, which he says he can live with. He might be in a minority on that one, for clubs are not tooled up to accommodate a second version of a sport when they are struggling to sustain the first.

Let's say they love it - it's a good game after all, and useful for developing key skills - and crack on to 15s. If they are doing so as a youth player in his local club then their target will be to represent their province, and perhaps their country on what currently is the Ireland youths (under 18). If you are in the business of keeping talented kids in the system, rather than have them favour Gaelic games (the GAA are all over this like a rash), then the prospect of a green jersey is very attractive, and beyond the gift of the GAA.

Nucifora's plan is to merge schools and youths at 18, however, a year earlier than is currently the case. You understand his desire to get the best under 18 side available across all the classes and creeds of schools and clubs, but he'd be better off leaving this at it is.

Instead he should turn his attention to catching some of the late developers. Maybe the Australian obsession with bedding kids down early in their own system, and blooding them quickly is a reaction to the intense pressure historically applied by the other codes in that country.

Clearly in Ireland we also fight to sign up our limited talent, but our club game allows us to bring a few latecomers to the party, especially those whose physical maturation isn't freakishly early.

The night we spoke, Nucifora was heading as part of an IRFU delegation to a meeting with the AIL clubs in Divisions 1A and 1B. There he would see first hand the stupefying level of ignorance that obtains in the union on the issue of how clubs are carrying out their business.

"We have to understand on the pro side of the game what it is the clubs require from the bottom end of the pro game, but also the clubs have to understand what it is these guys require from them to be able to bring the player through," Nucifora says.

"At the end of the day it's not about the province, not about the club, it's about what is best for the player. At the moment all I hear is whinging from both sides about what they do and what they don't do. It's a starting point to get some dialogue."

That would be fine if we were circa 2005, 10 years after the game going pro, and 15 years after the advent of national leagues in this country. To be speeding towards the 21st anniversary of professional rugby however, and to be in the dark as to what you wanted from one of your key constituents, and what they wanted from you, is mind bending.

Thankfully Nucifora says that legislating against players playing in the AIL - the masterstroke introduced by the union this season - is for the birds. So please let it fly off somewhere else. Time and effort spent on perfecting a pathway for a country as small as ours is critical, and problematic. Some of it is straightforward though. Having a vibrant club game is the logical conclusion to filling in the gaps in the teenage years. Otherwise we'll keep plodding along, and as soon as David Nucifora heads back to Australia, his pathway will be broken up and re-laid.

"I don't plan on going home any time soon," he says. "What will be easy is for people to sit on the fence and say this won't work. Does that mean that we don't do anything? Do we sit there and keep being reactive or do we actually become proactive and try and confront some of the challenges in the game head-on and see if we can actually make it work? Doing nothing cannot be an option. I'm confident that what we're doing will be in the best interests of Irish rugby - in the short, medium and long term."

The 2023 World Cup he hopes will be a happy confluence: a tournament hosted in this country, featuring a few fellas in green jerseys from what currently are unexplored parts of Ireland. Along the way you can use trips to Twickenham to chart our progress.

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