Nucifora: If we keep doing what we've always done, we'll keep losing quarter-finals
David Nucifora believes Ireland's sixth World Cup quarter-final exit was "disappointing" but stopped short of declaring Joe Schmidt's side a failure for their inability to break the glass ceiling of the last eight.
The IRFU's performance director conducted an end-of-year press briefing at the Aviva Stadium last night where he gave a wide-ranging assessment of the state of the Irish game in the wake of the tournament and the subsequent disappointing provincial performances.
Appointed by the union in April last year, the Australian is currently in the spotlight on a number of fronts, from player contracts, overseas recruitment and the movement of players between provinces.
Nucifora began by appraising Joe Schmidt's World Cup performance having conducted a review that included the players, coaches and management teams.
"It's not where we wanted to be," he said when asked if the tournament had been deemed a success at the end of the process. "We would be kidding ourselves. We wanted to go further in the tournament, we want to go and at least make a semi-final. We are not happy with the way that it ended up.
"Does that mean it was a failure? No, it doesn't because there is a lot of good things that have come out of Irish rugby in the last number of years.
"We have had a coach in place now for two years who has managed to deliver us two Six Nations titles with this group of players. We won the pool in the World Cup which was a good achievement. Yes, we lost a quarter-final game, that is disappointing. Does that mean it is a failure? No. Are we disappointed? Yes."
There was no getting away from the impact of the loss of four key players through injury and the suspension of Sean O'Brien on the game against Argentina which brought the campaign to a shuddering halt.
Rather than lament the loss of those players and move on, however, Nucifora wants Ireland to have the strength in depth to be able to absorb injuries and to still perform. He highlighted the lack of time Ian Madigan had in the Leinster No 10 jersey before being thrust into the Argentina defeat.
When he went through the review process, Nucifora found the roadblocks to success were familiar.
"A lot of the things that were addressed in 2011 are still pre-eminent in 2015 and some of those topics now have to be met head on if we are to make sure we're getting beyond quarter-finals," he said.
"We need to be getting into the real business end of World Cups. That's not going to happen unless we do look at actively changing the way we've always done things, because if we keep doing what we've always done we're going to keep getting (beaten in) quarter-finals."
Which brings us to the contentious issue of overseas signings and what Nucifora described as "blockages" in the system, highlighting Jimmy Gopperth as an example.
Nucifora says he is not against foreign players and even suggested the outside investment could be sought to lure big names to the provinces, but he believes that recruitment must be far more targeted.
"There's talent, there's opportunity and then there's the quick-fix model, so we have to make sure that the foreigners that are put forward to us actually do the job that is required," he said.
"It can't just be a kneejerk reaction to say, 'Here's a foreigner that some player agent has put in front of us'. It's got to be a plan that is well thought through if someone is going to be given the tick to go ahead and come into the system."
He refutes the notion that the provinces cannot compete under the current structures.
"We have a fair bit of firepower at our fingertips in our teams and it's a matter that we utilise it and use it as best we can," he said.
"I've no doubt that we will continue to be competitive in Europe. You've got to re-assess everything that you do and you've got to be able to fine-tune it to work out how you've got to get your team winning again but we would all be more than confident, the provinces and ourselves, that we've got the players there to be able to still win European competitions. I have no doubt about that."
As for Robbie Henshaw, Nucifora says that the decision on whether he stays at Connacht or moves to Leinster is up to the player himself. The performance director has begun negotiations with the Connacht star's representatives. While the prevailing winds seem to point to a move east, it is understood that the union's preference is for the home-grown star to remain in Galway.
"That's up to Robbie. Sometimes people think that we manipulate the system and tell people where they can play and that's not the case. The players, when they are off contract, it is totally up to them to decide where to play," he said.
"As much as we would like to influence them, we don't have that right. If they choose to play in any one of the four provinces that is up to them. Ultimately, he will make a rugby decision.
"Connacht are putting their best foot forward to be able to put a deal out there to keep Robbie there, and they can't do much more than perform on the field and they're doing a damned good job of that at the moment. They've continued to improve. They've been at the right end of the table for quite a number of weeks.
"Pat (Lam) is doing a great job with the group of young blokes he's got out there, and I'm sure when players are making those decisions Robbie will look at that, and he'll decide whether his future lies best in Connacht or somewhere else."
There are others, like Madigan, who Nucifora would like to see shift province in order to spread the playing base and build depth while giving themselves the best shot at playing for Ireland.
"They have to take responsibility as well and if you're going to be a world-class player you have to have ambition and drive," he said. "If that means packing up the kitbag and moving down the road then that's what it takes."
However, Nucifora accepts that despite his warning that players moving abroad are putting themselves at a "disadvantage" when it comes to international selection, Irish rugby could lose some big players before the contract season is out - with Madigan and Simon Zebo the major flight risks.
"I can't sit here tonight and say players won't go. I do think that there will be players that could potentially leave. Particularly the cycle that we are in at the moment, where you have just come off the back of a World Cup, you are more exposed," he said. "They could very well look at it like that and that is a decision that they have to make.
"This is probably the most contentious time to be able to lock them down but they are decisions that they make. The players value very highly playing for their country and they take all of these things into account and they are not going to leave here without giving it a lot of thought.
"If Ian decided to go and he played 10 every week we wouldn't ignore him, we don't ignore any of the players overseas. We watch them all very carefully. Does it mean that he is at disadvantage behind the boys playing in Ireland? Yes, it does."