David Nucifora will be confirmed today as the new IRFU Performance Director – and not before time - after a few years of instutional stagnation, it has taken the personality of Joe Schmidt to begin the sweeping-out process. Ireland have successfully negotiated the first couple of stages of the professional era by fluke initially, then well, with the help of some excellent players:
- Early Days (95-99) – the Union were woefully unprepared for the game going open and took some time to come around to the reality that players, once the lackeys of the blazers, were now their employees. The players responded rationally – by going somewhere they would be paid – England. When it reached the stage where the coach wanted the international team to train in England as all the players were there, the Union sparked into life and began to adjust. Signing up players to play at home was that step – Lens is commonly acknowledged as a low point, but Ireland had turned the corner by then and were about to climb the mountain
- Golden Generation (00-08) – backboned by the Ligindary Munster team, the so-called Golden Generation made silverware de rigeur for Ireland fans, winning Triple Crowns in 2004, 06 & 07. That they never took the final step to a Championship was down to some ill-luck and an annual swoon against an excellent French team. The shambolic RWC07 tournament spelled the end for Dagger, and chunks of the team as well
- Silver Generation (09+) – sure weren’t we lucky we had a new generation coming through at all? The provincial academies began producing high-quality young players, leading to Irish dominance in Europe and a new batch of international class players, who are now nearing their 30s, such as Fez, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Bob and Tommy Bowe. Deccie’s first season produced a Grand Slam, but an inability to retire older Golden players and assimilate Leinster players unused to his hands-off method spelled doom. Joe Schmidt came in and got the knack right away, winning the championship in his first season.
Perhaps the most gratifying thing about Ireland’s win this year was the number of players involved who will have no memory of RWC95 in South Africa – whe Ireland were caught in the headlights of a new era and it wasn’t pretty. The likes of McGrath, Moore, Henderson, O’Mahony, Murphy, Jackson and Marshall have only ever known rugby to be professional and well-run – and success comes as an expectation, and with expectations for your working environment. This generation of rugby players have moved Ireland on to a new plane, and the structures that have delivered us from the nadir of 1998 to the trophy-laden current era might need to be tweaked slightly to ensure success going forward.
Here are some things on Nucifora’s desk:
- Sure isn’t it great we have any props at all? Definitely, but the four best props in Ireland being in one province is not. Next season you will have a situation were Ireland’s starters and backups are in D4, while Ulster re-built a new front row using raw materials like .. er, Calum Black, Ricky Lutton, Adam Macklin, Ruadhri Murphy and Dave Ryan. This isn’t a sustainable situation, or a desirable one. Better spread of talent among the provinces is needed if we are to make the most of the current crop. Marty Moore is likely to become first choice sooner rather than later, but Jack McGrath is in a tight spot – too good to be a reseve, not quite good enough (because almost nobody in the world is) to unseat Cian Healy. And this situation can be extrapolated to other positions as well – Ulster are stacked with centres, Leinster also at backrow. How do we divvy these out to the provinces?
- But which provinces? This leads us on to… Connacht. The Westerners have occasionally lived a parlous existence in the professional era, and it seems that, once again, the Union again have the province’s future in their eyes – are they going to be fully-resourced, told they can keep Robbie Henshaw, and given the tools to qualify for the ERCC? Or are they going to be denuded of their stars, and turned into a Chiefs old-boys/Ireland young-boys club that gives European experience to talented youngster who are at the back of the queue in their home provinces? It might seem tough, and unwarranted given the success of the last couple of years, but money talks.
- What about player management? This has been a strong suit of the IRFU’s and a pull-factor in keeping players in the country, but in the new world where qualification for Europe hinges on Pro12 performance, the league could become more of a hard slog, and the likes of Matt O’Connor and Axel Foley are likelier to want greater access to the players. It’s not in the IRFU’s interests for any of The Big Three to miss out on the Heineken Cup. Maintaining the right balance is crucial. If the Welsh regions can get their act together – they can’t be this bad forever, right? – things could get sticky.
- Penny-wise, pound-stupid. Refusing to make Johnny Sexton an initial offer to keep him in Ireland this year may have cost Ireland a win againt BNZ and a Grand Slam. We need to be in a position where we can value the contribution, in monetary terms, home-based players make to Irish rugby – in the ERCC era, this likely means pay increases to keep them here – a broader strategy would help too - the year after losing Sexton, we had 10+ internationals with their contracts ending – is this a good idea? All that said, the IRFU appeared to do a good job in re-signing a number of high profile players this year in the wake of significant French interest, but this side of the job will only get more difficult, especially if the English clubs get to a similar position in terms of wealth to their French counterparts. Already they should be formulating a plan for bringing their most important player – Sexton – back to Leinster when his contract is up next year. This process should start before the 2014 November internationals – a significant bugbear of the players, and one that seems pointless.
- Coaches. In Ireland, we have a Kiwi coaching the national side, and an Aussie, two Kiwis and one Irishman at the provinces. Acknowledging that there are Irishmen being lined up at the next level, Neil Doak for example, are we happy that Conor O’Shea, Mark McCall, Birch and RADGE are learning their trade abroad? Will they come home, or won’t they? Ideally they would be here, or abroad for a defined time to learn and bring home new methods of coaching.
Nucifora’s role will involve an element of diplomacy – he will need to straddle the occasional* conflicts between the requirements of the provinces and the national team, and if necessary, crack the whip. Matt O’Connor has been more vocal about his straitjacket than is traditional, and Rob Penney, having nothing to be nice about, has taken to lobbing verbal grenades all around the place. If Anscombe finds himself a similarly lame duck next season and is insisting on playing Nick Williams ahead of Roger Wilson, Nucifora might need to have a conversation. The oft-trotted out line that successful provinces make the national coaches job more difficult was merely a smokescreen to excuse underachievement, but there is little doubt that the relationship could be more joined-up.
* may be more often occasional