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The mastermind behind Ireland's rise to the top

David Nucifora during Ireland rugby squad training at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland - Getty Images/Brendan Moran
David Nucifora during Ireland rugby squad training at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland - Getty Images/Brendan Moran

It took just half an hour for the decision to be made to appoint Andy Farrell to the Ireland coaching team.

It was December 2015. A couple of weeks earlier Farrell had been sacked from his position as defence coach with England by the incoming Eddie Jones.

David Nucifora, Ireland’s performance director, knew almost instantly that he had his man when the pair met up at Dublin airport for exploratory discussions about taking up the defence job under Ireland head coach at the time, Joe Schmidt.

It would prove to be a seminal moment. For Farrell and Ireland.  

“Joe was fantastic with what he did and was exactly what the group needed at the time, but as we evolved as a rugby nation and the team evolved, Andy had the absolute perfect skill set to take them to that next level,” said Nucifora, in a rare interview during his nine-year tenure.

“It is important to get people who can complement each other’s skill sets, while being able to work together as colleagues. He's been excellent at that. The team is a microcosm of the broader performance unit.”

And therein lies the secret to Ireland’s success. It is not just the supply line of talent provided by the Dublin private schools – aside from the relatively recent rise of St Michael’s College as a rugby powerhouse, Leinster have always been served by fantastic rugby academies.

Nor is it  just founded on the great diaspora of English coaching talent across the Irish sea following the 2015 World Cup, evidenced by the fact that Farrell’s coaching team includes Mike Catt, while Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree hold senior positions in Leinster and Munster respectively.

Andy Farrell and Nucifora enjoy a close working relationship - Getty Images/Harry Murphy
Andy Farrell and Nucifora enjoy a close working relationship - Getty Images/Harry Murphy

No, the critical factor the rise of Ireland to top spot in the World Rugby rankings which has now taken Farrell’s side to the verge of a fourth Grand Slam, runs much deeper, and is founded on the tightness of the relationship with Nucifora, even though as performance director, he has the power to hire and fire Farrell.

While the issue of whether to appoint a line manager to the head coach has dogged the RFU for decades, Philip Browne, the IRFU chief executive deserves credit for grasping the nettle back in 2014 by effectively giving control of the professional game in Ireland to Nucifora.

“They had the bones of something, but they didn't know what they had, and I'd been in other systems and I’d seen things that they didn't know what they needed,” said Nucifora, the former Wallaby hooker and head coach at the ACT Brumbies and Auckland Blues.  “They needed someone to drive the system.”

The challenge facing Nucifora was to bring the best out of the parochialism in Irish rugby by designing a central model that improved the pathway to the national side while allowing the provinces to retain their unique identities and rivalry.

As one source put it, he began to “kick the tyres” on the provincial coaching appointments and created a national talent squad system that focused on 16 to 20-year-olds that fed the academy system. While the provinces kept their autonomy, the IRFU centrally invested in staffing to ensure they had centrally monitored expert input in coaching, strength and conditioning training, analysis, nutrition and education.

Along with the fine-tuning of the talent supply line, Nucifora set about overhauling the provinces to ensure their ambitions and methods were more aligned to the national side. Without any political baggage, he was given a free role to create the structure that maximised “operational and financial efficiency.”

That includes the complete oversight of all contracts – both for players and coaches – which ensured that the recruitment of overseas players did not impact the Irish qualified players development and also helped to keep the best home grown talent in Ireland.

Nucifora was also able to encourage greater movement of players between the provinces to ensure they got more game time, even if it meant forgoing provincial loyalties all in the name of the national side. He also established a scouting system for Irish qualified players globally while also driving the investment and transfer of players to the Sevens programme, which unearthed talent such as Hugo Keenan and Robert Baloucoune.

Huge Keenan has been in fine form this Six Nations - Shutterstock/Fabio Frustaci
Huge Keenan has been in fine form this Six Nations - Shutterstock/Fabio Frustaci

Yet perhaps most importantly of all, has been the potent mix of scrutiny, support and cohesion provided to Farrell, who himself has embedded himself entirely in the programme, trusting in turn his coaching staff, while having the foresight and judgement to take tough selection decisions and put his players into the positions where the injury disruptions they were met with calm and ruthless responses rather than panic.

Nucifora in turn encouraged Farrell and the provincial coaches to make decisions without the pressure of short-term results to prevent them becoming “week to week animals”.

“I want our coaches to think they are buying into something that is bigger than winning the competition this year,” added Nucifora.

“Sometimes people paint this as big brother but it is not. The Connacht role to replace Andy Friend with Pete Wilkins was a joint venture with the chief executive and myself telling them what they need is never going to work.”

That ultimately includes his relationship with Farrell.

“I'm not a control freak, when I trust someone, and I trust their instincts, if he tells me he thinks that's going to work, I'll ask one or two questions and that's good enough for me.

“We work together, we strategize together and talk all the time about where we need to be and what we need to do to get there. It’s collaboration and understanding the benefit of what we need to do to make it happen.”

And that included the decision to extend Farrell’s contract to 2025 early last year before the RFU had the chance to consider him as a successor to Jones.

“He's a sort of bloke that once he makes a commitment, and he knows that you've got faith in him, I knew we'd get a deal done,” added Nucifora. “I was confident we had the right person, I never doubted for a moment that he wasn't the right person to do it.”