Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan during the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) and the book describes his ideas on the structure of society and legitimate government. Leviathan was very influential on Western thought, arguing for a social contract and rule by an absolute sovereign.
Irish rugby created the role of its absolute sovereign in 2013 when appointing a Performance Director. David Nucifora, an Australian, was the man selected and he started work at Lansdowne Road on 1st June 2014. The concentration on the personality is human instinct but to my mind misses the real point and gets the order of things a bit muddled. The IRFU didn’t have Nucifora on their books and wanted to find something to do with him, they created the role first and then filled it.
The most significant thing about the role of Performance Director is that it is a Union appointment. A lot of decision making at the professional level in Ireland is done at provincial level by the Chief Exec, such as the appointment of coaching staff and development of facilities for training and match days. Those roles have bedded down in the last decade so the creation of this new post creates a bit of a power struggle for all incumbents.
The role of Performance Director was identified as necessary in the Plan Ireland white paper which is available for download on the IRFU’s website and which states “The ultimate focus of Plan Ireland is to improve results in Rugby World Cups.” That’s a very clear mandate and the Introduction of the document highlights the importance of the Six Nations and the players.
Henry Kissinger, a powerful exponent of Realpolitik, contended that “in the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power.” Hegemony means empire while a balance of power is a mutually beneficial arrangement that suits all parties. The appointment of a Performance Director tilts the field towards the Union and leaves Irish professional rugby looking to find a new balance of power between national and provincial interests.
As he is the first to hold the office, Nucifora has carte blanche and will shape how his successors manage the role. A review of his CV makes for impressive reading. He was capped twice at international level during the Phil Kearns era and was on the bench when Australia won the 1991 World Cup. His Queensland career came to an end in 1993 and he was one of two founding directors in 1994 of DMS Davlan, an Auctioneering, Valuation & Asset Management business that specialises in the valuation and realisation of plant and machinery assets. Nucifora actively worked in the business until 2001 when he took over as coach of the Brumbies who he led to the knockouts of three Super 12 competitions, the third of which they won. He was sacked after that in controversial circumstances with widespread rumours of a player revolt led by the senior members of the squad.
Nucifora became the first non-Kiwi to coach an NZ Super Rugby franchise when he took over the Auckland Blues after a year as a technical advisor. Joe Schmidt was an assistant coach at the Blues between 2004 to 07 and Nucifora was succeeded by Pat Lam after he left the role in 2008. Nucifora applied to coach the Wallabies in 2008 but John O’Neill appointed Robbie Deans and Nucifora was instead installed as the ARU’s High Performance Manager where he succeeded Pat Howard.
His time as Australia’s high performance manager will doubtless influence his decisions and priorities in Ireland. Although his mandate is to improve Ireland’s performance at the RWC, Nucifora is well aware of the role that provincial teams play.
‘It’s really important that we get an Australian team in the Super 14 finals – it’s hugely important. ‘Everyone from John O’Neill down has acknowledged the concern in reduced crowd and television figures over the past year or two, and we feel 2010 is very important in winning back fans. I want all our teams to do well and build winning habits so they get used to winning. That’s a key thing for all of them. And those young guys are the future.”
He was also aware of the impact that injuries had on a successful season and the fact that two of Ireland’s probable front five starters (Ross and Henderson) both suffered hamstring injuries won’t have escaped his attention.
”The smallest things make big differences in this competition. When you go back over teams that have won Super rugby titles, you look at their injury rate and it’s almost non existent. Obliviously the coach and players are important, but the smarts of the medical and conditioning staff to keep the players up there, fit and healthy for the duration of the tournament, is critical to winning.”
Coincidently, three Aussie front five players had hamstring injuries in 2012 when Nucifora pushed for a national player welfare program
“With this extended season, out of the SANZAR countries, or at least South Africa and New Zealand, everyone is talking about our lack of depth compared to those competitors. If we don’t manage our assets better than anyone else, we are at greater risk. This is what has driven this and it’s a project that’s only going to grow. If we don’t do something about this, and we become reactive rather than proactive like we are doing now, we do suffer the risk of not being able to compete and slide down the world rankings.”
The reason given for this centralised system was that it was in response to gaps arising in player welfare management due to “multiple handovers” of players from state to Wallabies level, with the June Test window falling in the Super Rugby season when it hadn’t before. That would only cover a small portion of matches so sounds like a land grab to me.
At the same time as Nucifora was HPD, he was coaching the Australia u20 national team, whose perceived underperformance drew some ire from the Aussie sporting public, who expected better. Nucifora copped flak as coach of the u20s and explained his model here:
“There is some sound thinking behind taking this approach with the U20’s. One of the main reasons is that it will help deliver continuity through all our development programs. In my role as HPU General Manager, I’m dealing with National Talent Squad (NTS) players aged from 15 to 18 years at the entry point for ARU development programs. Those players naturally feed into the U20 system and then to Super Rugby and hopefully the Wallabies who are at the top end of the HPU program. By having this sense of continuity in the program, we’ll always be tracking where players are at in the development pathway; what’s working with them on and off the field. That can be extremely useful in ensuring the holistic development of an individual.
I think it makes sense in this HPU role to utilise my coaching skills set. However, I am also aware that developing coaches in our system is crucial. To that end, we are asking the four Super Rugby provinces to nominate young up-and-coming coaches who will come in and help with the preparation of the team. We will also take one or two of them away to Japan with us. They will be coaches in the existing Academy systems or from the club ranks, rather than assistant coaches from the provinces who are already in the professional environment. Doing it this way will give us the chance to expose some emerging coaches to higher levels of competition.”
We noted in October 2014 that “the appointment of Carolan gives the Union closer control and opens a development pathway for aspiring coaches. Will they be technocrats or field workers? It also looks to be a significant movement by Nucifora to consolidate resources, let’s see what will follow.”
This move seems part of the Nucifora play-book and he explained his objective upon appointment:
“Our aim is to keep producing players of a world-class level to ensure that the national team has the ability to choose from a really strong pool of players. The role also looks after all of the underage teams, the age grade teams that exist off the development path in the men’s, women’s and sevens game. I think that players getting exposure to the highest level that they’re capable of, or ready for, is important. I don’t think that players sitting on the sideline in tracksuits benefits anyone. That’s an important part of development. Also, players want to play. We’ll be working on a system where we don’t want players warehoused in one particular spot. If it’s in their best interests, and the teams’ best interests, the national body’s best interests, then hopefully we can get them playing.”
Fast-tracking young talent appears to be part of that plan, “I’d like to think that it’s possible to be able to give coaches the confidence and players the confidence to perform at a higher level at a younger age if they’re ready,” and is a subject I’m very interested in after compiling research for the Age of Aquarius. Matt O’Connor’s selection policy didn’t match up with this and, while I believe that the IRFU’s Performance Director had no direct involvement in removing O’Connor, it didn’t help his cause that he drew fire from Schmidt and Nucifora.
Meeting the needs of a province, particularly a bulk supplier to the Irish team with what’s best for the national interest is at the forefront of Nucifora’s mind:
“Sure we want to see the best players playing as much rugby as we can possibly get them playing at the top end of the game. But then you look at scenarios and you say, okay, would it be fair for us to go to Leinster and say you guys are supplying whatever it is, 55 to 60 per cent of the players to the national team right now, so obviously they need back-up to be able to do their job too. We have to take that into consideration. At the same time, we don’t want to see who we believe is a quality player sitting in a tracksuit in the bench and not getting enough footy. So it’s a balancing act between the two.“
The Lightning Rod
As always, there are two reasons to pay for a professional 1) expertise and 2) accountability and the appointment of a Performance Director is no different. The real losers in this are the blazers who, until this appointment, were the main constituents of the PCRG, acting as patrons and dispensing union contracts.
As noted in this article, the blazers are all amateurs who receive rugby related perks (tickets, travel, dinner and wine) as the culmination of years of service. How well qualified that made them to have a significant say in professional rugby was always questionable but that is now a moot point.
It’s sobering to think that the issues raised in this article occurred within the last RWC cycle (June 2012) and seem a matter of bumbling. It is also unclear who was responsible for the various small-scale shambles but that isn’t the case now. Murray Kinsella opened a recent article that drew comparisons with Kayser Söze, “the bogeyman of the criminal underworld” and an unwritten part of the Performance Director’s brief is to act as a lightning rod for any criticism and to get blamed for everything. Heavy is the head that wears the crown! No Stephen Moore to Munster, (potentially) Henshaw to Leinster, Madigan to Bordeaux – blame Nuisance For Ya!
To my mind, a lot of this is simply crying wolf. Moore is expensive and Munster don’t have any money, Henshaw is entitled to go where he wants and Madigan has earned his opportunity for a payday that Leinster can’t justify.
Reviews of Nucifora’s time in Australia as HPD are not positive but his is a professional appointment, not a political one. The performance director is not a blazer who needs to court popular support within union circles, he is a suit who will be judged on the results of the national team. Nucifora’s CV includes entrepreneurial ability, experience at the highest level of playing and coaching at a level just below the top grade. He’s put noses out of joint along his way but he’s a survivor with a lot of experience.
There is a sense of deja vu permeating Irish rugby in the aftermath of a quarter-final exit against opposition of a similar calibre to Wales in 2011. As we’ve noted before, Irish rugby supporters deal with seasonal produce and if the squad proves during the Six Nations that it has greater depth than in the past, and can prosper with no Drico and no Paulie, then the mood will lighten. Some parties will learn to deal with the IRFU’s main man sooner than others and they’ll likely be successful. If they don’t, their careers at the top are likely to be nasty, brutish and short.