The success of the elite player pathway has created a steady stream of talented young players pushing through into the senior professional ranks. However changes to professional competition structures are now limiting opportunities for exposure at senior level.
“What players crave is opportunity, they crave opportunity to show how good they can be. We as an organisation have to create that opportunity for them if we are going to retain those players.” – David Nucifora
The recent Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa was an opportunistic test case for the IRFU as it sought to develop a cohort of young players whose access to senior provincial rugby had been limited since graduating from the Irish U20s programme.
The IRFU is conscious of how it can sustain its competitiveness with the top rugby nations of the world.
“What we’ve got to look at is how do we keep rubbing shoulders at the top end of the game. We’ve created something that has gotten us to where we are but we are already looking beyond the world cup. We are already looking at what is going to happen over the next five years, ten years,” said IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora.
“We have to be creative, we have to be thoughtful about what’s going to happen next. We have to find ways for those players to be given hope and opportunity like the Emerging Ireland tour created and how it connects into Ireland A. We have to make sure that our volume of quality young players are given the amount of time they deserve to reach what they want which is to play for Ireland.”
Investment in the elite player pathway has created this consistent throughput of talent. There are currently 60 IRFU employees that work across the elite player pathway, working either within the provinces or centrally within the IRFU High Performance Unit. This group is made up of coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, physios and medical professionals.
“Over the last six years now we’ve put an enormous amount of effort into building the infrastructure that gives us that sustainability and enables us support what goes on at the very top of the game. So the NTS (National Talent Squad) which we brought in six years ago has really changed the dynamic of what we do in the pathway,” continued Nucifora.
The Irish U20’s programme is an important benchmark for Irish Rugby’s young talent, where three Six Nations Championship titles including two grand slams have been delivered in recent years.
“There are so many people contributing to what’s going on and getting these players to where they are, that they can compete, both provincially very quickly at a young age and create competition within the provinces. It doesn’t just happen magically. It happens because there is a structure with a lot of really talented people working unbelievably hard to support our players to make them the best that they can be,” said Nucifora.