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What has David Nucifora ever done for Irish rugby?

As he prepares to end his 10-year stint as IRFU performance director, the Australian reflects on guiding changes to Irish structures and mentality even when that caused tensions

David Nucifora is a Monty Python fan. There’s a scene in the Life of Brian where the Popular Front of Judea are having a secret meeting to decry Roman rule. Reg, the leader of the group, asks the question, “what have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one, voices pipe up highlighting positive Roman contributions until an exasperated Reg shouts: “Alright but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Another voice added: “Brought peace?” to which Reg replied: “Ah, shaddup.”

Sitting in the IRFU’s high-performance centre (HPC), Nucifora laughs when it’s suggested to him that the scene has a parallel in his 10-year stint as performance director, a role he will formally hand over to his successor, David Humphreys, on June 1st. Nucifora will stay on to oversee the prep and attend the Sevens at the Paris Olympics, for which the Irish men’s and women’s teams have qualified.

During his tenure Ireland have won four Six Nations Championships – Nucifora started a couple of months after Ireland won the 2014 tournament – two Grand Slams, had a couple of stints as the number one ranked side in the world, beat the All Blacks for the first time in history, won Test series in Australia and New Zealand and enjoyed a first Test victory on South African soil.

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Then there were the three Under-20 Grand Slams, a World Junior Championship final, a Sevens World Series tournament win for the Ireland women’s team and qualification for the Paris Olympics, while the men finished this season at the number two ranked Sevens team in the world and earned a place at a second Olympics.

That’s clear visibility in terms of achievements. There are a few other trinkets too in terms of improved governance, new pathways, and restructuring within the age-grade and high-performance spheres. But apart from that, what has David Nucifora done for Irish rugby?

His detractors would say that it’s all a coincidence, a conflux of other people’s work, that he’s been a contrarian. Mistakes and missteps were made during his time, undoubtedly; rows, standoffs, and personality clashes, absolutely; and domestic coach development issues; but only the perpetually churlish and blinkered would fail to acknowledge the positive aspects and notable landmarks of his stewardship.

We have managed to shift the mindset of Irish rugby ... 2016 was the start of the unravelling of that block that Ireland had about how good they could be

Nucifora, a former Wallaby Test hooker, ex-head coach at Brumbies and the Blues in Auckland and one-time general manager of high performance of the Australian Rugby Union (2008 to 2013), was due to take up a position with Ireland about six to nine months before he started on June 1st, 2014, but a row over the governance of European rugby delayed his arrival.

He recalled: “I obviously knew Joe [Schmidt], he had moved into that role [Ireland head coach], taken on the team and won the ‘14 Six Nations Championship, which was great. I knew that the top end of the game was going to be well managed. It was a matter of looking at what’s under the bonnet.

“Joe had the particular skill set of being able to take that team at the right time of its evolution to be able to give it what was needed, which was discipline, detail; that Irish had bucket loads of emotion, but it didn’t give them any consistency. Joe brought all the components of game consistency.

“My job was to work with Joe but at the same time build everything else that sat beneath that so that he had a pipeline of players that could do the job he needed.”

He approached the newly minted role of performance manager without any preconceptions, had done some homework in the holding pattern before his start date but “after six months in the job I realised that the system was being constrained a little bit by how we invested or didn’t invest.

“To be fair to [chief executive] Philip Browne and [treasurer] Tom Grace, they trusted me to do that and allowed me to invest in things that would get performance outcomes for Irish rugby. For them that meant allowing the performance department to make and drive financial decisions with the right checks and balances of course. A lot of that responsibility came back to me to prove that I could do that.”

One example he offered, a €5-million investment in the national talent squad (NTS) programme where the IRFU put staff and resources around 15- to 16-year-old players. He explained: “The whole purpose of that was so we had players coming into academies who had the foundations of their development in place earlier.

“This meant that players could spend less time in academies and do more productive things which meant that they were able to move into the senior squads faster.

“The whole methodology was to create competition sooner, for academy positions and for contracts in provinces. That model also allowed us to never be overly reliant on any one player at the top of the tree. We had to get to a position where we wouldn’t be held to ransom by any player wanting to leave.

“That competition drove both performance outcomes and financial efficiencies. It helped the provinces to be able to say that we have more talent coming through, so we can manage our cost base and always be looking to increase and improve our performances. That element of it is really important in how this model works.”

Nucifora’s work philosophy prioritised driving successful outcomes with a singular focus, and his methodology occasionally dispensed with social niceties. “We have a little mantra in here, it’s ‘get shit done’.

“Compromise in high performance can bring you down, you are watering down something that if you want to be successful is going to stop you getting there. There are times in this job where I have been accused of different things, different behaviours but you have got to have that single-mindedness to say that’s where we are going. There will be things along the way that we have got to consider or adjust.”

Would he drive that first and apologise for collateral damage after? “Absolutely, nothing is personal, it is about getting the job done. There is always going to be disagreement. High performance is about tension. If you don’t have tension, you don’t have performance, you are not pushing and driving hard enough.”

Nucifora found Ireland to be quite a traditional place, fixated on how you do things, and embraced the challenge to change that outlook. He pointed to the IRFU staff in the provinces and how they are encouraged to find what’s best practice in world terms.

Nucifora’s relationship with the Women’s 15s game can best be described as confrontational. Ireland went from winning a Grand Slam in 2013, reaching a World Cup semi-final in 2014, claiming another Six Nations title (2015) to a point where they failed to make it to the last global tournament, a state of affairs happily redressed by qualifying for next year’s event.

He said: “It is difficult when you are publicly being attacked on something that isn’t totally accurate. There was a lot of time and effort going into it but there were a lot of changes that needed to be made. There were things that sat in the strategic plan for women back in 2017 that weren’t acted upon. High performance is only part of it.

“We need the community game to adapt and adjust. If we can find ways to increase the size of the talent pool, then I’d back our staff to be able to develop our talent. You have to work hand in hand in this business.

“People think it is just as easy as paying people to be professional. You need the right competitions, the right development programmes, appropriate ones. We are on the right track, the work that Gillian [McDarby] is doing in the women’s space is outstanding. But we are still fighting criticism around the development of the Celtic Challenge, for example.

“You have to continually find ways to adapt and develop the players. It is going to take a little time for those programmes to be fully able to house professional female players.”

Nucifora pointed to the fact that the Sevens World Series meant establishing a professional set-up. “People forget that those girls trained full-time for nothing, then they were playing and training full-time for less than €10,000. They made enormous sacrifices and for me they were like the other Olympic athletes who train full time but aren’t remunerated.

“When we turned around and tried to do the same for more female athletes, we were criticised that we weren’t paying them enough. It has taken the men’s game 30 years to get to where it is now. The women’s game isn’t going to change overnight.”

The public push back from a group of Irish internationals inspired some soul searching. Nucifora admitted: “You have to be realistic, there is a lot of momentum out there in the world around where the game is going; trying to fight that, or argue your case, didn’t have a lot of merit at the time. Anything we did we were always doing for the right reasons.

“What that public attack did was prompt some within the business to have a good look at the inertia that was there and take a different approach to it. There was some good that came out of that [even though] some of the rocks were being thrown at the wrong people.”

Yes, central contracting has got a little bit out of proportion over the years with how well Leinster have done but why should we be penalising Leinster for being good at what they are doing?”

The IRFU’s strategic plan (2018-2023) offered a blueprint for the development and evolution of Irish rugby. Some of the stated performance goals were attained but other markers, such as reaching a World Cup semi-final and winning multiple European Cups, were not. Nucifora admitted: “As an organisation you have to have something that is public-facing. I accept that. For me those sort of strategies are largely for internal purposes.”

He argued that putting things down on paper can jar, especially if considered unrealistic or fanciful and that it is not what you say or write down that matters but what you do on a day-to-day basis that underpins a winning culture.

“We want to be the best we can be and that’s what drives everyone here. If you don’t think like that, act like that and behave like that you probably don’t belong here. You can’t be scared of failure in this business. You know that you are in a public position and there are always going to be people waiting for you to fail and criticise you, but it takes a certain type of person that you need inside of this building not to be worried about that.

“For me, strategic plans are great, you aim to achieve everything that you put in them. They are a roadmap of how we are going to get there.”

The vexed issue of central contracts and Non-Irish Qualified (NIQ) players for the provinces is another tinder box that flares up time and again, particularly Leinster’s dominance of the former. Nucifora said: “Just before I arrived, Leinster were arguing the same thing about Munster.

“There is no perfect central contracting model that I know that exists around the world, but we have got one that works. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be tinkered with and it is being at the moment, there will be some adjustments made, but primarily the key elements of it need to remain.

“It helps us retain the players in Irish rugby that Irish rugby wants to retain, and it helps us manage the cost base of that as well. Yes, it has [got] a little bit out of proportion over the years with how well Leinster have done but why should we be penalising Leinster for being good at what they are doing?”

He argued that there is huge financial investment from the IRFU “in staffing in each of those provinces. They are driving the talent base, the talent pathway. Just about any national team across the age groups or in the seniors has about a 50 per cent fill of Leinster players. Now that is a [population and playing] demographic.

“They should be getting those sorts of numbers if everything is functioning well. There is nothing wrong with that.” While central contracting is here to stay, the union is currently examining some tweaks to ensure a fairer financial model.

How difficult was it to temper the ambitions the provinces had with the NIQ system Nucifora refined? “It’s a balancing act. I understand the role that some of the foreign players can play for the provinces, but we took a long-term view for Irish rugby.

“Everyone is looking at what we have done here over the last few years, they all think that it is a top-down centralised approach that’s driven success whereas I don’t believe that is the case. This system, if you really look into it, is a bottom-up model,” – that is a reference to a reliance on the NTS, Provincial Talent squads (PTS) and academies to provide the best young talent.

“Now the top-down piece allows us to manipulate and put pressure on when it is required with the provinces. We have a very thorough and full view of who is where, when they will be coming through, because it is about the speed that you bring players through. You have to bring them through appropriately, but you have to make sure that they have an avenue to come through and compete.

“Managing foreigners has always been a key component. You have to manage the expectations of the provinces. They see it that they need foreigners for certain reasons. It’s created tension and awkward moments but again it’s been for the benefit of Irish rugby to make those changes.”

One of those rows involved the 2022 Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa where the provinces were unhappy, but Nucifora, supported by Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, overruled their misgivings. He wanted the provincial coaches to look at the bigger picture.

The Australian explained: “We tried to encourage them to do that and most of the time they’re really good, our four [provincial] head coaches. In that particular instance that [tour] agitated them. We identified players who had breached the gap between 20s and were starting out on their provincial careers. We wanted to expose them to our national team coaches.

“What it enabled the provinces to do was to see their provincial players in a different light with different coaches. From that, it turned Munster’s season around. They started selecting players they weren’t selecting. It was a definite change; it isn’t the sole reason [they won the URC] but it was a big part of it. For the national coaches it was a way for them to be able to get a better understanding of the talent pool.”

What would Nucifora view as his successes? “I think the quality of the people that we have brought into the organisation. Getting a group of people with differing skill sets and backgrounds to work together and get the outcomes, that’s one thing that I would definitely be proud of and that we have managed to shift the mindset of Irish rugby.

“I couldn’t believe that when I got here in 2014 that Ireland had never beaten New Zealand, couldn’t get my head around that; 2016 was the start of the unravelling of that [mental] block that Ireland had about how good they could be.

“Since 2016 in Chicago we have continued to beat New Zealand on a regular basis. The effect that it has had through the system, be it in our underage programmes, Sevens, in everything we do, young kids now coming into our programmes have the expectation that they can be the best in the world, that they can beat anyone.

“For me that’s a total shift in the Irish mindset around how good we are, how good we can be. There is an expectation now, that we are going to do well. I don’t know if that was ever the case. Just having the confidence to realise how good they could be and to have a swagger in what we do; in an Irish way.

Asked how he has found his time in Ireland, he replies: “I have loved it, genuinely have. I do feel that it has been a privilege to be given the responsibility, one I took very seriously. I think that is why I have approached the job the way I have.

“I got a real buzz out of the World Cup. Even though we didn’t get the results we wanted, seeing the support the team got was mind-blowing, that Irish rugby is in such a state that we had that many people spending their money to go to France to support that team. Irish rugby is unbelievably healthy. I am proud of that.”

Soon it will be time for Nucifora to “eunt domus” as the graffiti read on the wall, incorrectly, in another scene from the Life of Brian. And to do so with thanks.

Nucifora on
Club game

Men’s: “Rugby wouldn’t be in a good place if the academies provided everything. We need the clubs, who do a really good job in housing our young, high-level players and we want that competition to be as strong as it can be.

“As far as trying to turn it into part of high performance, we had a look at it, tried twice, we couldn’t get that to work. We don’t have time to wait around, we have to move on. It is still important to us but wasn’t going to fill the role that potentially it could have; it would have taken a lot of work. We had to move forward.”

Women’s: “Clubs that want to invest in good pathways for young female players are really important and they should be rewarded for that. At the same time as the governing body, we have a responsibility to create access points to the game of rugby.

“In England it’s different, in France it’s different. Getting the game into schools in a meaningful way and having meaningful competitions is going to be super important in growing the female game and we have to grow that.”

Attracting women and girls from GAA to Sevens

“If we don’t tap into the hundreds of thousands of girls that play Gaelic we are mad. Sevens is the vehicle to do that. We have to create competitions and development pathways that are easy for girls who don’t play rugby to access, because mum and dad aren’t going to drive their daughters down to the local rugby club.

“But if there are competitions in schools and in universities then the access points for girls to be able to play rugby, try rugby – and Sevens is the uncomplicated version of how they can learn to fall in love with the game – we have to work harder in that space and people have to realise it.

Player movement between provinces

“We can’t force the players to go anywhere, it is ultimately their choice, but it does tell you about someone’s ambition, the desperation, and desire to be the best they can be. Sometimes they prove you wrong by being able to do it where they are, which is fine too.”

Not publishing World Cup reviews for 2019 and 2023

“If you want [reports] to be valuable it is probably going to have things that aren’t for public consumption. How people use that information or interpret the written word can be taken multiple ways. We hold ourselves to account here every week by our results and what we achieve or don’t achieve.

“I don’t think that by publishing a report on things that could potentially be interpreted the wrong way and affect the working relationships that people have internally here, so those reports for me are for internal consumption to make sure that we have learned from what we have done.”