The mastermind behind Ireland’s rise to the top

David Nucifora during the Ireland rugby squad’s training session at North Harbor Stadium in Auckland – Getty Images/Brendan Moran

It took just half an hour for the decision to call up Andy Farrell to the Ireland coaching staff.

It was December 2015. A few weeks earlier, Farrell had been sacked from his post as England’s defensive coach by new Eddie Jones.

David Nucifora, Ireland’s performance director, knew he had his man almost immediately when the two met at Dublin airport for exploratory talks about taking on the defensive job under then-Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt.

It was to prove to be a landmark moment. For Farrell and Ireland.

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

“It’s important to find people who can complement their skills and work together as colleagues at the same time. He was excellent at that. The team is a microcosm of the great power unit.”

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

Nor is it based solely on the large diaspora of English coaching talent beyond the Irish Sea following the 2015 World Cup, as evidenced by the fact that Mike Catt is part of Farrell’s coaching staff, while Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree hold senior positions at Leinster and Munster respectively.

Andy Farrell and Nucifora work closely together - Getty Images/Harry Murphy

Andy Farrell and Nucifora work closely together – Getty Images/Harry Murphy

No, the critical factor in Ireland’s rise to the top of the rugby world rankings, which has now put Farrell’s side on the brink of a fourth Grand Slam, lies much deeper and is based on the close relationship with Nucifora, although he has the power as performance director to hire and fire Farrell.

While the question of whether to appoint a supervisor to the head coach has haunted the RFU for decades, IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne deserves credit for seizing the nettle back in 2014 by effectively putting Nucifora in control of the professional Game broadcast in Ireland.

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

The challenge for Nucifora was to make the most of the narrow-mindedness of Irish rugby by designing a central model that enhanced the national team path and allowed the provinces to retain their unique identities and rivalries.

As one source put it, he began “kicking the hoops” at provincial coaching dates and created a national talent roster system focused on 16- to 20-year-olds who fed the academy system. While the provinces retained their autonomy, the IRFU invested in staff centrally to ensure they had centrally monitored expert input in the areas of coaching, strength and conditioning training, analysis, nutrition and education.

In addition to fine-tuning the talent supply line, Nucifora set about overhauling the provinces to ensure their ambitions and methods were more aligned with the national side. With no political baggage, he was given the free role to create the structure that maximized “operational and financial efficiency”.

This includes full oversight of all contracts – both players and coaches – ensuring that the recruitment of foreign players did not hamper the development of qualified Irish players and also helped retain the best domestic talent in Ireland.

Nucifora was also able to encourage greater movement of players between provinces to ensure they were given more playing time, even if it meant sacrificing provincial allegiances on behalf of the national team. He also set up a scouting system for qualified Irish players worldwide and encouraged investment and player transfers into the Sevens programme, which brought to light talent such as Hugo Keenan and Robert Baloucoune.

Huge Keenan has been at his best in this Six Nations - Shutterstock/Fabio Frustaci

Huge Keenan has been at his best in this Six Nations – Shutterstock/Fabio Frustaci

But perhaps most important was the strong mix of control, support and cohesion offered to Farrell, who fully embedded himself in the program, having confidence in his coaching staff while having the foresight and judgment to make difficult selection decisions and deliver his players into the positions where the injury stoppages were met with calm and reckless reactions rather than panic.

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

“I want our coaches to think they are embarking on something bigger than winning the competition this year,” Nucifora added.

“Sometimes people paint that as big brother, but it’s not. The Connacht role of replacing Andy Friend with Pete Wilkins was a joint venture with the Chief Executive and me, telling them what they need is never going to work.”

Ultimately, that includes his relationship with Farrell.

“I’m not a control freak when I trust someone and I trust their instincts, if they tell me they think this is going to work, I ask a question or two and that’s good enough for me.

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

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

“He’s the type of guy that as soon as he makes a commitment and he knows you have faith in him, he knew we were going to do a deal,” Nucifora added. “I was confident that we had the right person, I never doubted for a moment that he was not the right person for this.”

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