Bronze Generation?

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

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32 Comments

  1. Simon O'Keeffe

     /  April 17, 2014

    to be tangenital Macklin is leaving Ulster too (no sign of McAllister following return to club rugby too)
    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/rugby/ulster-rugby/adam-macklin-leaving-ulster-rugby-after-fulfilling-big-dream-30132612.html

  2. Amiga500

     /  April 17, 2014

    Is it a bad thing for coaches to be serving time abroad? Surely it opens them up to challenges, ideas, tactics and techniques that they wouldn’t necessarily encounter on these shores; which then means they are better able to add to the knowledgebase “back home” when they do return….?

    • I’d tend to agree with this line of reasoning, although depending on where you’re working your knowledge base is likely to be added to in very different ways. For all the benefits a young coach will get from coaching in France, he’s not particularly likely to learn how to implement an accurate, fast-passing high-tempo game there, for example.

      I’d like to see more Irish coaches spend time in New Zealand especially, but given the wealth of indigenous coaching talent they have, that would probably require some sort of structured exchange programme with the NZRU, because the demand for Irish coaches simply wouldn’t exist in the vast majority of instances. I don’t know if something like this exists, but given that I can’t think of an Irish coach who’s had that kind of experience, I’d hazard a guess that it doesn’t.

  3. Len

     /  April 17, 2014

    Lads, all good points about the challenges that face nucifora (not to mention the biggest challenge ie getting the blazers to agree to anything). But what about Nucifora himself? I read a piece on him in the times which gave some back ground that didn’t make him sound like the greatest catch for the IRFU. Some of that could have been IT spin but any thoughts?

    • Joe Schmidt worked with him before at the Auckland Blues, so that’s good enough for me.

    • I think it hardly matters whether Nucifora is Joe Schmidt pt. 2 or David Brent, if he’s limping and quacking from day 1. His boss can explain (today’s Indo):

      “The bottom line is if we want to move players, it requires co-operation among a number of parties. It requires the co-operation of provinces, players and the union to get involved,” Browne said.

      “If a player is in-contract, he is in-contract. Unless there is an agreement reached with the various parties then the fact of the matter is, (it is) probably not (possible to engineer a move). There is absolutely no point in going down the road of imposing decisions on people, on organisations.”

      Great news for us Connacht fans who feared being development-provinced again, but from an Ireland point-of-view you have to wonder what’s going on here – is Nucifora’s appointment another ham-fisted one-foreigher-per-position screw-up that will be parked and/or quietly unwound, or are we going to be treated to a bun-fight between administrators (what is the effect of Nucifora’s appointment on Browne’s role?) ?

  4. Small sidenote but I feel like Rob Penney – a somewhat prickly man from the beginning – was made aware of his caretaker role by the press early on and has had a difficult enough time in Ireland as a result. Constantly reminded that he was going against the grain of the munster way and told that their best performances came when his gameplan was abandoned, he must have been pretty frustrated. He was never really afraid to speak his mind but now that he has nothing to lose he seems to be letting it all hang out.

    • Fair point. After limping out of Europe 4 years in a row (Leinster, Biarritz, Toulon, Ulster), 2 epic performances last year are put down to … the same players than were there from 09-12!

      • Amiga500

         /  April 17, 2014

        Eh?

        It was all about the pashun and intensuty. Traditional Munster values in Europe since before time began (or ~2000AD).

      • seiko

         /  April 17, 2014

        The same players WOC? Only players still left in Munster from 2009 are POC, DOC and D Ryan. Munster have lost Horan, Flannery, Hayes, Leamy, Wallace, Quinlan, Stringer, O’Leary, ROG, Mafi, Barry Murphy, Ian Dowling & Paul Warwick. Take POC & DOC out of the squad and the average age is probably about 24.

        • Munster vs Ulster (2012): Jones; Hurley, Earls, Mafi, Zebo; O’Gara, Murray; du Preez, Sherry, Botha; Ryan, O’Connell; P O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Coughlan.

          Munster vs Toulouse (2014): Jones; Earls, Laulala, Downey, Zebo; Keatley, Murray; Kilcoyne, Varley, Botha, Foley, O’Connell, P O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Coughlan.

          Pretty similar there .. although your point about the 09 team is well-made

        • curates_egg

           /  April 22, 2014

          Is WOC’s point not more that the big performances last year were attributed to certain players’ roles (POC and ROG) and not the coach? That’s the way I read it and it is certainly the prevailing (only) media narrative. No wonder Penney didn’t need much of a push.

  5. Leinsterlion

     /  April 17, 2014

    “…….made silverware de rigeur for Ireland fans, winning Triple Crowns in 2004, 06 & 07.”

    Triple crowns are technically silverware, but……..c’mon, I hardly think they should be held up as any sort of a quantifier of success.

    • Except for the whole bit that we hadn’t won a thing in nearly 20 years?

      • BenM

         /  April 22, 2014

        Have to agree with WOC here – that win in 04 was special. In fact all triple crowns are special, though admittedly less valued than they were. People talk about how provincial success drove Ireland but winning those Crowns and consistent performance under EOS also gave those guys a taste of what winning was like.

    • kevin

       /  April 18, 2014

      Completely agree. Finishing second or third from 04-08 when there was only one other decent team in the competition was far from a success. 1 QF in a World Cup is hardly a ringing endorsement for the ‘golden generation’ (the props couldnt scrum, the half backs couldnt run or tackle and our back three had a serious lack of cutting edge)..I really hate that term!!

      Also, I think the comment on failing to sign Sexton possibly costing us the BNZ match and grandslam is absolute bullshit. Sextons mental weakness for Ireland and his inability to kick shit from a rope when a penalty is to the right of the posts is the main reason for those. Paris being the prime example

  6. gerald williamson

     /  April 17, 2014

    David Nucifora will be walking a fine line between Joe Schmidt & the Provincial coaches. Having said that, the IRFU who are his paymasters will be expecting David to crack the whip. No prisoners taken.

  7. seiko

     /  April 17, 2014

    A useful hatchet man I’d say. No one will get upset if the IRFU have to fire him. Fairplay to him, he got a nice long contract (5 years), so maybe he is ensuring that he gets a decent payoff.

  8. “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 … Ulster are stacked with centres, Leinster also at backrow. How do we divvy these out to the provinces?”

    Don’t agree with this at all, to be honest. Any good European side needs at least two players pushing for one position. Leinster have four top class props who just happen to be the frontline players for Ireland now, but there are lots of good players, Kilcoyne, Archer, Fitzpatrick, even Ah You, around the provinces who are not far off. Same with the centres – Ulster have a glut and other provinces are wilting, but Ulster will require a surplus to get through a season. It’s up to the individual players to decide if they’re better off being a sub or getting first-choice experience elsewhere. All the evidence suggests McGrath, for instance, wants to remain battling with Healy.

    • Jack O’Connell is the guy other provinces and the IRFU needed to target – a guy who did think his development was not going to be served by sitting in the queue, and whoever’s fault it was, we failed to keep him in the country.

    • Peat

       /  April 22, 2014

      I was thinking something alone these lines. Leinster need all those props, Leinster will gave gametime to all those props, and they probably won’t overplay them either. Sure, as an Ulster fan, it would be super nice if Moore and McGrath were at Ulster – but they’re not and its up to Ulster to develop their own props, such as Andrew Warwick and Ricky Lutton, and find a few gems in the rough, such as Black and (hopefully) Murphy – and hopefully creating a bigger pool of international standard Irish props. I certainly don’t think the system’s broke.

    • But Nucifora’s persoective is the national side. Its clearly better for Leinster to have them all, but is it better for Ireland?

      • Not Michael Bent

         /  April 22, 2014

        Well, you also would have to say that it’s not fair to compare the situations of McGrath and Moore –
        Moore is behind Mike Ross, who is in his mid 30s now, so probably won’t have that much longer left in him as a guaranteed first choice, so Moore can expect to the starter within a year or two.

        On the other hand, McGrath is behind Cian Healy, who is only two years older than him, and could potentially keep him on the bench (for club and country) for the duration of his career.

        As a Leinster fan, I’d hate to see either go, but I would be really, really worried/upset if Moore were to get moved, given how close Ross may be to the end of his career, but as an Ireland fan, I could justify McGrath moving (particularly with Peter Dooley/Ed Byrne coming along)

        • Think we made that point in the post …

          • Not Michael Bent

             /  April 24, 2014

            Another reason why I shouldn’t read an article before the bank holiday weekend, and the comments after the bank holiday weekend.
            Sorry!

      • Peat

         /  April 24, 2014

        You can make the case that it is. From the Irish national perspective, you get the following pluses out of the current situation

        a) Player management – Since the Leinster management have four international choice props to play with, they can afford to rotate and sub off early pretty regularly, thus ensuring none of them get overplayed. I’d consider that more important for prop than for any other position due to the extreme physical workload.

        b) Development of other options – Ireland know they have four there or there abouts international props already just in Leinster. By keeping them there, the other provinces are forced to develop even more options. Munster are sort of getting there; you’d expect their looseheads to put a serious challenge up to McGrath next season, while Stephen Archer seems to be continuing his slow march towards being a passable scrummager. Ulster’s starting point may not be as stellar, but its more IQ players getting opportunities, and I think there’s possibly more to players such as Murphy, Black and Lutton that the original article gives them.

        c) Less players and people getting grumpy over interference.

        The player management is the main thing though, particularly at prop.

        On the minus side, you have constrained gametime and first team opportunities. But a reserve front rower should be getting the most time out of any second XV’er, so its less of an issue, and players get injured so that chance is always there.

        There’s also the issue that backlogs can develop – see Furlong and O’Connell, or Farrell at Ulster… backlogs sort themselves though. It’s a shame neither O’Connell or Farrell stayed in Ireland – I heard O’Connell got an offer from Ulster but wanted the more guaranteed gametime abroad – but if they hit their potential, they’ll probably get every chance to return. The only way they won’t is if Ireland end up with so many international standard players that moving players around the provinces is pointless.

        So basically its all down to how much gametime and what sort of gametime. I’d suggest a look at the career of Dan Cole – became an England regular while second choice at his club, started to look crap when playing 80 minutes or so week in, week out.- would say that it’s not quite as simple as getting all your props starting as often as possible.

        Me, I’d come to the conclusion that if Jack McGrath has a strong preference to staying in Leinster, Ireland don’t look like they’re losing out and that it’s not worth leaning on him to do otherwise.

        • Surely if we can dictate who they play for, we can dictate how long they play for? I don’t see how 60 minutes at Ulster is less preferable to 20 minutes at Leinster?

          • Peat

             /  April 24, 2014

            True enough on that score – although this way, the IRFU don’t have to particularly intervene. But yeah, the gametime issue is less of a thing in Ireland.

            But I still hold that Ireland are not poorly served with the current model, and are better served with happy provinces and players than griping.

  9. BenM

     /  April 22, 2014

    “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”

    You’re starting to sound like Gerry Thornley lads. If he had been offered more, he might have stayed and we might have won something, possibly maybe?

    Equally he might have rolled his ankle and not been in Paris to score a crucial try.

    Stick to the facts and not the hearsay on money and contracts – they made an offer, he refused. He wanted more, they came back with more but too late in his eyes. He signed elsewhere. That’s it. There may be rights and wrongs in that and lessons to be learned but anything else belongs in the coulda/woulda/shoulda file.

  10. Barry

     /  April 24, 2014

    ” It might seem tough, and unwarranted given the success of the last couple of years, but money talks.”
    I’m a Connacht fan btw

    Well, don’t complain then if T14 steals all Ireland’s internationals – cos guess what Money talks!

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