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Nucifora: ‘Summer Tests Against Japan And USA Important Games For Ireland’

IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora has stressed how important it will be to get crowds back into Aviva Stadium - and the grounds of all four Provinces - in the coming months.

Nucifora: ‘Summer Tests Against Japan And USA Important Games For Ireland’

Since the Covid-19 pandemic took its grip on the globe in March of last year, the Ireland Men’s National Team have played no fewer than six games behind closed doors at Aviva Stadium. There has also been a number of matches involving Provincial sides played under similar circumstances at Irish Rugby HQ, while the Ireland Women’s National Team have had three internationals in front of an empty Energia Park in Donnybrook.

Although the return of mass spectators to Aviva Stadium, in addition to the RDS, Thomond Park, Kingspan Stadium and the Sportsground, won’t completely lift the financial burden faced by the Union, it will be a welcome development nonetheless from Nucifora’s point of view.

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“It’s obvious that we need to get crowds back in. In saying that, I can’t go through this without thanking Sport Ireland and the Government for their support. Because they’ve been brilliant, they’ve been fantastic in supporting sport and supporting the IRFU. They’ve worked with us unbelievably closely and effectively during this time,” Nucifora said at a media briefing on Wednesday morning.

“We will be able to have crowds back in during these July matches [Ireland’s Summer games against Japan and the USA]. It’s just a matter of what the actual numbers will be. Then hopefully that gives us the ability to get close to full houses by the time the November internationals roll around. Not only for ourselves, but for the Provinces.

“The Provinces desperately need to have crowds back in. It’s the lifeblood of their finances and again, the sooner that we can fill the stadiums with people, it’s going to go a long way to filling the financial hole.”

Covid-19 has also had an adverse effect on Ireland’s four-year cycle in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup finals in France, with the 2020 Summer tour of Australia and this year’s proposed trip to Fiji both being cancelled.

Those aforementioned home encounters with Japan and the USA ensures Andy Farrell‘s Ireland will see some form of Test action in advance of the Autumn internationals, but Nucifora admitted it was a setback to see their initial plans for the summer months being altered so dramatically.

“I don’t think you can deny that that hurts. Touring is a really important part of team development. That hurts us, missing those tours. It’s the same for everyone else around the world. Everyone has been hit by the same restrictions. I suppose it then depends on how well internally your system is working to be able to try and balance out some of the challenges that Covid has placed on us.

“To have lost the Australian tour and the tour to Fiji this year, that we’d gotten so close to be able to pull off only for it to be ditched at the last minute, is really disappointing. In saying that, we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to pull these two games together with help from Japan and the USA and World Rugby.

“They’re going to be important games. With the eight guys away on the Lions tour, it’s an opportunity in this window to be able to continue that development of bringing players through and giving them that experience at another level of the game. That is going to be important as we move forward.”

Nucifora also discussed what the future may hold for Women’s rugby in Ireland, particularly from an international perspective. England and France are often used as the template for what rival nations can achieve, but the Australian believes the IRFU need to focus on the existing infrastructures they have in place.

“That’s certainly the key to it. It’s about being able to broaden the base. We’re working hard on developing the competition structures and the pathway model for young women to be able to come through. We’ve already started working on broadening the roles of our elite development pathway coaches.

“Where their roles are broadened to take more responsibility over the coming time to focus on the development of young female players. We’ve got some other things in mind around competition structure and how we’re going to build that base to be able to bring more girls through. That’s a key because if the game wants to keep developing at the top end, and World Rugby wants to keep growing the exposure at the elite end, we have to have the capacity to be able to meet those commitments.

“To do that, we’ve got to be able to keep bringing through a volume of players and a quality of those players as well to be able to achieve that. It’s a long-term thing that we’ve got to be working on. There’s no real short-term fix to it. It has got to be a commitment over a long period of time to be able to build and establish a pathway that is suitable for the women’s game.”

Indeed, greater emphasis on female talent identification is part of a wider strategy that Nucifora and the IRFU have been working on over the last 15 months. Staying engaged with the younger players within the Irish system has become a major focus during their period and the Performance Director is hopeful they can ultimately reap the rewards of this approach.

“It [the pandemic] has forced us to look at our pathway and continue to evolve it. We’ve revamped and realigned our NTS [National Talent Squad] and our Provincial Talent Squad programmes with greater levels of servicing and accountability. That has been really critical, to be able to stay engaged with our young, developing players during this time.

“We’ve modernised and centrally co-ordinated a new Talent ID system that is focused in areas outside of our traditional nurseries. These have already started to be piloted and will continue to be rolled out over the coming months. There has been a restructure of High Performance staff and roles in the Elite Pathway that will give a greater emphasis on female talent identification and player development.

“That will be supported by modernising pathways and competition structures. During this time, there has been greater integration of Sevens into both the male and female game, and the integration with our Academy systems and how we’ve utilised that during this period. To be able to give opportunities and game time to a lot of our players.”

Nucifora also praised the legacy left behind by Matthew Wilkie, who spent four years as the IRFU’s Head of Coach Development before returning to a post in his native Australia in January of this year. He still holds a Coach Consultancy and Support role within the union and with a host of former professional stars displaying rapid growth in their coaching careers over the past few months, the work undertaken by Wilkie has started to bear fruit.

“Matt had been a really important asset for the IRFU and had done some fantastic work initially around restructuring the coach development area in the domestic game. Putting things in place, updating and modernising that. Before moving into the last couple of years, really focusing on our elite coaches and coaches in the elite development pathway.

“Matt had worked personally with a lot of guys over the last couple of years, where you see Paul O’Connell and John Fogarty working on the senior team now. Richie Murphy taking over the U20s as a head coach. Collie Tucker and Denis Leamy are now working with Richie in the U20s.

“You look at the progression of Collie Tucker and Mossy Lawler out in Connacht, now moving through the system up into the senior team. These things don’t happen by accident. They happen because the coaches and the people they’ve been working with have put a lot of time and effort into their development.

“We’ve got some other really exciting things happening in the player pathway with Ian Costello coming back into the fold, into the Munster Academy. Which is going to be a great acquisition for us. There’s some more changes happening in that pathway. You would have seen Willie Faloon, an ex-player at Connacht, he’ll be starting with Ulster shortly and their Academy as an Elite player development officer,” Nucifora added.