Opinion: It is very wrong to suggest David Nucifora transformed Irish Rugby
Written by Jim Demps…
Departing IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora gets a lot of credit but is it deserved?
Rewind your clocks to the 1st of June 2014 when David Nucifora walked into Lansdowne Road to occupy the newly created IRFU High Performance Director role.
He had the experience to deliver the goods having previously worked as the General Manager of the ARUs High Performance Unit, as well as with the Brumbies and Auckland Blues.
The former Wallaby and Queensland hooker had been to Ireland before having captained the Australian side that lost to Munster in 1992. This, however, was slightly different.
The new role in Irish Rugby was borne from the 2011 World Cup review which correctly highlighted the dangers in having voluntary committees making decisions which impacted the professional game.
Irish Rugby needed a professional to do a professional job and that’s what they got. The High Performance Director was only going to answer to the CEO.
David Nucifora: How should his contribution be remembered?
The rugby landscape in the country in June 2014 was in a good place. Ireland had just won the previous Six Nations, Leinster had walloped Glasgow in the Pro12 final in the RDS and the Irish Women were eating at the top table. Nucifora had a strong base to work from.
It should be noted that the voluntary committees hadn’t exactly made a balls of things prior to the introduction of the High Performance Director either.
There were five Irish Heineken Cup winners in the preceding ten seasons and six league winners from Ireland over the same period.
The national side had won The Six Nations twice and the Irish Women’s side won The Six Nations for the first time ever in 2013.
They would go on to do something the men could never do – play in a World Cup Semi Final in 2014, and in 2015 they would once again win The Six Nations.
So the premise was solid, the foundations deep and the resources plentiful. What about the delivery?
One of the key parts of Nucifora’s job was to push towards “Plan Ireland”.
This proposed to align the entire structure towards national team success without damaging the health of the provinces.
When the disappointing 2015 Rugby World Cup came and went, Nucifora insisted that a quarter-final exit wasn’t good enough and that Ireland needed to get to the business end of a World Cup to be taken seriously.
The review from the 2015 World Cup was extensive and the recommendations were numerous.
One of the highlighted recommendations was to prevent blockages for young Irish players and to maximise the exposure of up-and-coming talent.
Nucifora stood front and centre. He had broad shoulders, took the difficult questions and told the country that Ireland would get better.
He used the example of Ian Madigan, who played in the quarter-final defeat to Argentina despite having only played a handful of games at ten that season, to show where improvements could be made.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
In 2018 things did get better. Ireland were beating all comers, and off the back of it came the Irish Rugby Strategic Plan 2018 – 2023.
An ambitious yet achievable manifesto for a country that had just beaten the All Blacks and won a Grand Slam.
The Strategic Plan – with targets agreed by Nucifora – was shown to the public with great excitement.
And that’s where it ended, never to be mentioned again.
The 2019 World Cup finished with a record defeat to the All Blacks in another quarterfinal and a new cycle begun once again.
There were no broad shoulders this time though. The previously forthcoming Nucifora decided that the 2019 review should remain private.
The conclusions, recommendations and criticisms weren’t any of the business of the general Irish rugby public and there doesn’t seem to be any change in this regard following the 2023 World Cup.
So what about targets for the men’s game that were set in October 2018?
Two or more Six Nations titles? Nope.
World Cup semi-finals in 2019 and 2023? Nope.
Consistently in the World top 3? Arguably.
Teams consistently in knockout stages of Europe? Yes
Two or more European titles? Nope
Two or more Pro14 titles? Yes
Sevens success at a cost.
The sevens game has been a success for Nucifora with teams qualifying for the Olympics, but it is of little consequence.
It has to be noted that there is no club in Ireland that fields a sevens team regularly as neither the climate or domestic competition are available to do so.
And what about the women’s game? It would be disingenuous to say it has threaded water from where it was ten years ago.
In fact, the women’s game in Ireland has regressed to a level unthought of previously.
It’s fair to say that there have been green shoots recently with the introduction of professional contracts but you can only look up when you’re in the Third Tier.
And the general feeling is that the domestic game hasn’t fared any better either in the past decade.
The days of seeing professional players beyond young academy players in the AIL are dwindling and the relationship between the amateur and professional game is hanging by a thread.
Irish teamsheets, which are formatted to list players’ clubs, have recently shown that a number of players are unaffiliated to Irish amateur outfits.
Players whose rugby story began in a different country have been great additions to the game in Ireland for the past three decades and while most do become affiliated to a club, not insisting upon it further erodes the partnership.
So, just over nine years after his arrival, how will David Nucifora’s time in Ireland be judged?
There has been a lot of highs – the most recent Grand Slam and the series win in New Zealand being the two most noteworthy.
There has though, been a handful of lows as well. Nucifora won’t be able to escape Ireland’s three World Cup failures under his watch and the handling of the women’s game has been an unmitigated disaster.
Although we enjoyed some good days over the last decade, the state of Irish Rugby must be judged far beyond sporadic men’s team success.
In 2013, the Irish Women’s team won their first Six Nations and a year earlier two Irish provinces faced off in Europe’s showpiece event.
Has David Nucifora successfully built on that? Has the departing Performance Director “transformed Irish Rugby”?
If you ask me, the answer is absolutely not.