David Nucifora's transformation of Irish Rugby
The IRFU announced on Wednesday their decision to extend the contract of performance director David Nucifora for a further three years until the end of the 2021/22 season.
Nucifora was appointed to the IRFU in April 2014 in the newly created position of Performance Director as he was charged with overseeing national team performance, provincial team performance, national age-grade teams and women’s team performance, sport science and medical services, elite referee development and National Professional Game Board (NPGB) and policy development.
Nucifora has fared well in his role thus far with Ireland winning two Six Nations championships and a Grand Slam during his tenure, Leinster winning a Champions Cup and a PRO14 title, Connacht winning a PRO12 title, Munster qualifying for three consecutive Champions Cup semi-finals and two consecutive PRO14 semi-finals, while Ulster qualified for their first Champions Cup quarter-final in five years and their first PRO14 semi-final in three years.
The provinces are certainly in a better place than they were prior to Nucifora's appointment and one of the hallmarks of the Australian's time in Ireland has been interprovincial player migration, which has undoubtedly benefited the clubs.
The vast majority of professional rugby players in Ireland play or played for the province of their birth and rarely do they switch clubs during their careers but during Nucifora's reign we've seen provincial barriers become less and less of a stumbling block with regards to player movement.
The benefits for the provinces and the national team have been clear but the path there hasn't always been smooth.
Nucifora received heavy criticism for essentially vetoing Ruan Pienaar's contract extension with Ulster, siding with John Cooney, while he also refused to sign off on Wallaby Stephen Moore's proposed move to Munster as he wanted to ensure there was an Irish eligible player benefiting in each situation.
Cooney stepped in for Pienaar almost immediately and has been one of Ulster's best players over the last two seasons while Niall Scannell has cemented his himself as Munster's first-choice rake in the absence of Moore.
Interprovincial transfers - while they existed before with the likes of Sean Cronin and Niall Ronan - were more of an oddity prior to Nucifora's arrival but they have become much more prevalent in the years since he has joined the IRFU with Ireland internationals Joey Carbery, Jordi Murphy, Andrew Conway, John Cooney, Robbie Henshaw and more all availing of beneficial transfers with British & Irish Lion prop Jack McGrath and scrum-half Nick McCarthy both leaving Leinster to join Ulster and Munster respectively next season.
The freedom of movement has ultimately benefited the Irish provinces from a success point of view as it has placed less of a strain on the academy system.
Munster only had seven members of their starting XV against Leinster last weekend that graduated through the club's academy but they nevertheless advanced to both the Champions Cup and PRO14 semi-finals for the second consecutive season.
Meanwhile Ulster had nine academy graduates in their starting XV that played Glasgow last weekend, and although they may have been thrashed at Scotstoun, they were still apart of a side that was playing semi-final rugby.
Carbery, Murphy and Cooney will be the poster boys of interprovincial transfers but below the surface there are the likes of Cian Kelleher leaving Leinster for Connacht and then returning to Leinster again. There's Stephen Fitzgerald joining Connacht on loan. Bill Johnston leaving Munster to join Ulster. Sam Arnold leaving Ulster to join Munster.
Nucifora has been able to foster an environment where it is no longer as much about who you're playing for as much as it has become about how much you are playing and where do you rank among the competition in your position.
He's created an environment where players like John Cooney can go from sitting on the bench at Connacht to coming off the bench for Ireland within the space of one season, or where Joey Carbery can go from being the third-choice fly-half at Leinster to the Champions Cup top points scorer of the Pool stages with Munster just one season later.
Cooney's position of scrum-half, for example, has three players across three provinces essentially battling for the role of deputy scrum-half with Ireland while the second-row is a constant guess with five to six players fighting for two spots at any one time.
The competition has increased value across the positions as Joe Schmidt and Nucifora look to avoid the pitfalls of the 2015 Rugby World Cup where their lack of depth was exposed while they also look to continue to grow a sustainable system.
“A lot of the success is down to Joe, he’s driven a lot of really good things in the Irish game, not just in the national team,” Nucifora said last year.
“But part of his strength is to make sure he’s built a team that can carry those things on, carry them forward. Any good programme has to be sustainable and a lot of work we do is about that, it’s about being sustainable.
“Joe will be the first one to tell you he’d be confident we’ve built something sustainable and we’ll be continuing to focus on that.”
Nucifora's other big achievement in his role as Performance Director has been the rise of Irish Sevens.
The IRFU did not introduce a men's rugby sevens national team program until October 2014, six months into Nucifora's appointment, and five years later they laid claim to the 2019 Hong Kong Sevens qualifier with Jordan Conroy’s 10 tries across six matches earning him Player of the Tournament honours.
The win in Hong Kong also grants the IRFU core nation status which allows the union to send teams to compete at all series events, while the women's team also claimed fourth spot at the Sydney 7s tournament after a sixth place finish at last year's World Cup.
The women's XV team and their part-time coach role was an undoubted bleak point of Nucifora's reign; with the women's team failing to build on their 2013 and 2015 Six Nations' successes; but the IRFU's latest strategic plan for 2018-2023, which Nucifora helped devise, aims to count the female representation in rugby in Ireland at a minimum of 20% – including players, coaches, referees, volunteers and committees - as well as targeting consistent top three finishes and one title in the Six Nations for Ireland Women over the next five years, as well as a first-ever top-six finish at the 2021 World Cup.
Director of Rugby, Sporting Directors, Performance Directors etc., have attracted some degree of scorn over the last few years for the lack of clarity around their titles at times but Nucifora is essentially Irish Rugby's big decision maker and for the most part the Australian has got an awful lot of his decisions right.
The decision to extend his contract until the end of the 2021/22 season is deserved as Irish Rugby continues to try and build a sustainable model in his mould.