Payten column: Ireland's success a roadmap for Aussie rugby

International
by Iain Payten

Many will look at Ireland’s win over New Zealand in Dublin and rightly determine that Australia is not currently in the same postcode.

An argument can be made that the Wallabies aren’t as many suburbs away as feared – five months ago they beat the same Ireland side in one Test, and lost two others by just five and four points.

But there’s no denying the quality of the Irish performance against the All Blacks on Sunday morning was vastly superior to anything the Wallabies offered against black in 2018.

Size it up against Australia’s determined but still impatient and error-riddled win over Italy – which should have seen twice as many tries - and there’s no question about which spot you’d prefer as we turn the corner into a World Cup year.

Australia are still hoping their best rugby will soon click into place.

Ireland’s best rugby is now so deeply habitual they may as well be U2; knocking out the same performance at a big stadium every Saturday, with barely a bum note.


Amazingly, Ireland have never made it past the World Cup quarter-finals but that’ll certainly change in Japan next year.

Bookies have slashed Irish odds of winning the whole shebang to $4, only behind New Zealand in $2.10. The Wallabies? Out from $6 at the start of the year to $11.

But here’s the rub: the sight of Ireland flexing their green muscle and shutting down New Zealand should be a welcome one for Australian rugby.

Not because it’s seeing the All Blacks get beaten (although there is that) but because the emergence of Ireland as the “number one side in the world” – as Steve Hansen reckons – is an outcome that can replicated by others.

The secret potion used by Irish rugby to becoming, at least, the dominant side in the northern hemisphere is basically the same method used by New Zealand: a centralised model.

Like the Kiwis, Ireland’s national teams, provincial teams, pathway programs, coaches, CEOs, physios, S & C coaches, dieticians – everyone – are all employees of Irish Rugby.

Their one common goal is to get the Ireland Test team to win and every decision made works towards that.

But with a successfully aligned model, they just happen to have forged the best provincial team in the north as well in Leinster.

The man who oversees it all? A hard-edged Aussie by the name of David Nucifora, who’ll you remember as a former Wallaby hooker and Super Rugby-winning Brumbies coach.

Prior to joining up with the IRFU, Nucifora was the ARU’s high performance boss between 2008 and 2013.

In an interview with this reporter during the June series, Nucifora explained how apparently simple - and accessible - were the keys to Ireland’s growth and success.

Irish rugby already had a central structure, dating back to the start of professionalism in 1996, with all four provinces - Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht - under the IRFU's administration.

But the clunky co-ordination between the parties was left to committees and after another disappointing 2011 World Cup, a review determined a re-structure was required.

“That was my brief - to really get alignment in professional rugby, moving forward,” Nucifora said.

“The Irish system they actually had already in place was actually the best in the world anyway, they just didn’t realise they had it.

“My view on that was based on knowing the Australian model but having also worked in the New Zealand system (as Blues coach) for four years, and understanding what good looked like.

“My role oversees all the national team and programs but as part of that, the four provinces answer through to the central body. We contract the CEOs, we contract the head coaches, we contract the head of strength and conditioning, the physiotherapists, the head of academies and the elite player development staff that work within that.

“We have built on that, and we have invested a lot into the pathways. So we employ the nutritionists and analysts and strength and conditioners, who work off the academies. Then we make sure all of those people, who might be wearing Munster or Leinster colours but are all IRFU employers, use a strategy that is consistent so everyone is on the same page. That’s the strength of the model.”

Australian rugby has long clung to its federated model, and Nucifora was one of many who attempted to push centralised reform in Australian rugby.

It is co-operation that Michael Cheika and the state coaches have been working on in the high performance space in recent years, too.

But the many entrenched layers of rugby governance remain. It is still co-operation, not co-ordination.

Nucifora said the strengths of the Ireland system are retaining control of the player pathway - from bringing young players in right through to deploying them in professional teams - and managing player workload.

Johnny Sexton’s game-time is managed by the IRFU down to the minute for Leinster and Ireland, to prevent burn-out. He only started five games in the Pro14 this year, but led Leinster to a Heineken Cup title and Ireland to a Six Nations Grand Slam.

Compare Sexton's dominant end-of-season performances against the Wallabies in June (and against the All Blacks) with some of the weary-looking Wallabies top-liners in Italy and workload management makes sense.

In year-round seasons, mental and physical energy is a finite resource in rugby.

Indeed, it wouldn't be the worst thing at all for Cheika to deploy as many of the fresher types from Padova as possible against England. Two of the best were Kerevi and AAC.

New Zealand rested key All Blacks for two Super Rugby games this year, and while there are talks about Wallabies being rested next year, it'll still be best endeavours.

Nucifora said the added upside to central control was that by not overcooking elite players those stars were able to extend their careers, and thus resist the financial temptations of France and England.

“But more importantly, players want to win things and at the moment the system is helping to win things; both provincially and internationally," he said.

“The good thing about our system, people say 'oh its hard on the provinces.' But I think this year is a really good example of that you can do both."

In the last two years, Ireland have beaten the All Blacks twice in three games, won the Six Nations Grand Slam and Leinster have won the Heineken Cup.

Decent roadmap, that.