Saturday 24 August 2019

'There is belief in the Ireland team they are capable of beating anyone' - Nucifora

IRFU Performance Director says confidence is high in the Irish camp as the build-up begins to the World Cup, writes John Fallon

David Nucifora knows the level of expectation in Ireland after retaining the Six Nations title, but he believes the players are geared to deal with that pressure
David Nucifora knows the level of expectation in Ireland after retaining the Six Nations title, but he believes the players are geared to deal with that pressure

By John Fallon

He breezes into the hotel lobby bang on time wearing runners, training shorts and t-shirt, an open Apple Mac in one hand and two mobile phones in the other. One of the phones is Irish, the other Australian and who knows what part of the globe the laptop is tuned into.

It's a year since David Nucifora arrived in Ireland. Right now he is probably the busiest person working in sport in this country. And he probably has the most difficult job as well.

After all, who'd fancy being Joe Schmidt's boss, his ally and his servant all in one? And that's just for starters.

A former Wallaby with a couple of caps who was part of the squad which won the 1991 World Cup, he was brought on board to essentially steer the development of rugby in this country for five years.

He has to oversee the performances of the Irish senior team, the provinces, the age-grade national teams - including women's - elite referee development, sport science and medical services, elite player and coach development and so on. It is an almost never-ending list of responsibilities.

Paul O'Connell's move to France and the vacancy left by Matt O'Connor's departure from Leinster are examples of other issues which have crossed his desk in recent weeks.

Ireland fly half Jonathan Sexton kicks a penalty watched by Paul O' Connell during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield
Ireland fly half Jonathan Sexton kicks a penalty watched by Paul O' Connell during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield

But most of the time he doesn't have a desk, preferring instead to work out of a suitcase and laptop bag.

Nucifora, a former Brumbies and Auckland Blues coach who also headed up a similar performance director role in Australia, says that if he is going to pass judgement on an issue then he is going to make sure he is in the middle of the situation.

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Hence, that's why he was based in Brescia for the World Rugby U-20 Championship in Italy.

He oversaw the training, he reviewed the reviews, surveyed the plans, broke bread with them and supped vino in the evenings if the management headed out for a break, not holding back either in the banter exchanges.

His base was the team hotel in Brescia, but then he would head off to Bosnia for a few days for the men's sevens, back for a few more days, then off to France for a women's tournament.

Schmidt, Les Kiss and Simon Easterby flew in the day he departed for France, a sort of ships in the night moment as they go full steam ahead for what could be a glorious autumn.

He is a former Aussie U-20 coach and knows the value of the grade, particularly for Ireland where he sees a lot of similarities with his native country.

"The numbers issue in Australia and Ireland in these age groups is similar and our focus there was to try and get our percentages up as high as possible in each particular year," says Nucifora.

Jamie Heaslip and Paul O'Connell in action for Ireland
Jamie Heaslip and Paul O'Connell in action for Ireland

"If we could try and get somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent of this particular Irish U20 group as professional players then that would be positive and out of that you would be trying to get between 20 and 25 percent of the group as internationals. That is certainly the numbers that we would be trying to aspire to each year in this programme.

"It is a particularly important competition for us and for the players because it is a great benchmarking opportunity against the best teams in the world.

"It enables us to be able to make a judgement on, not only where our individual players are but also how our own systems are actually servicing our player requirements in comparison to the rest of the world.

The structures in all the other age-grades are under constant review, but from now on Nucifora's focus will be on the World Cup.

The training squad has been selected and will link up this week as the countdown begins in earnest.

Nucifora knows the level of expectation out there after retaining the Six Nations, but he believes they are geared to deal with that.

"The expectation is there from the public because they have probably liked the success. From the players' point of view I think they are fairly grounded and realistic.

"The margins are very fine and you probably saw that in no better way than the last day of the Six Nations.

"The whole group is very much aware of that and what you do in the lead-up is hugely important because fine margins will determine how far you go in this World Cup," said the 53-year old.

He wasn't around when a similarly confident Ireland went into the 2007 World Cup in France and bottomed out, but he has been in enough changing rooms to know you need a good dose of self-assurance to succeed.

"It has been a good year in a lot of ways obviously. We certainly had some great success with the Six Nations - that is a great springboard.

"Winning breeds belief and confidence and that is huge going into a Rugby World Cup," says Nucifora.

"There is that belief in the team that they are capable of beating anyone. What we do between now and then is hugely important.

"The players that are coming back will be coming back off a break that they definitely needed and then they will go into a very well-planned few months in the build up for a Rugby World Cup.

"We are sitting well at the moment -we just have to prepare well, work hard and manage the players well in the lead-up."

The World Cup will come and pass next September and October.

It could be a huge success or it could be a flop, but the rugby world will keep turning for Nucifora.

Hosting the Women's World Cup in two years in Dublin and Belfast will bring a new dimension to the sport in Ireland.

By then the IRFU hope to have also secured the staging the 2023 World Cup.

The U-20s are in World Championship action every year and next year the championship will be hosted by England at Sale Sharks' AJ Bell Stadium and the Manchester City Academy Stadium.

The following year - the tenth anniversary of the U-20 championship - the competition will be hosted by Georgia.

They will be the ninth country to host it - Italy (twice), Wales, Argentina, Japan, South Africa, France and New Zealand have staged it - but Nucifora said it wasn't on the agenda at present for Ireland to make a bid.

"The next two years are pretty busy and with the bid for the 2023 World Cup, it is probably not something that is on the list too soon.

"We have pretty much got our hands full with a few things coming up."

Few would argue with that.

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