David Nucifora interview: Beers with families helped Ireland past World Cup disappointment

David Nucifora interview: How beers with players' families helped Ireland past World Cup disappointment

It was when the pain of defeat was at its most raw that the first plans were put in place to ensure there would be no hangover from Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final defeat in Paris.

The day after the 28-24 loss to New Zealand last October, Andy Farrell, the Ireland coach gathered his squad and their families to enjoy a day together to mark the contribution and sacrifices made over the previous five months.

If the event was designed to allow the players to blow off steam, it also included discussions between Farrell and David Nucifora, the Irish Rugby Football Union’s performance director, about the next steps forward.

“We just had a few beers,” recalls Nucifora. “I think it was just about enjoying each other’s company, as a group and families were there, it was great. It is something that Andy is really focused on. Having his family close is really important to him and by extension the group and the IRFU have been really supportive of that.

“We had a day to enjoy each other’s company after the pressures of the build-up. We knew what we had to do. There’s nothing false about what we do. We’re driven, we’re determined. It’s ongoing. For us, it was clear that when we came back in, we would keep on working.

“One of the stand-out things about the World Cup was the connection the team had with the Irish public. The support they got in France was incredible. If there was a feeling of disappointment individually as a squad, there was also a feeling of disappointment for the fans.

“Everyone is different and some guys worked through it differently, but when we reassembled together, we spoke about the campaign, we reviewed it and they just moved on to the next challenge that was in front of them. Teams talk all the time about wanting to get better but this team genuinely does and they could not wait to get back at it.”

If the tone was set on that get together in Paris, Farrell gathered his coaches together not long after their return to Ireland. His instinct was to push on. After a 17-match winning streak, the margins of defeat had been so fine against the All Blacks. This was not the moment to rip everything up at the start of a new four-year World Cup cycle.

Nucifora’s review into the campaign underscored Farrell’s sentiment. The former Wallaby hooker and head coach at the ACT Brumbies and Auckland Blues, who laid down the foundation stones for Ireland’s success by overhauling their centrally controlled high-performance programme following his arrival in 2014, revealed that he and Farrell had spoken daily in France to provide real-time feedback.

“I am not a fan of those big ‘looking back’ reviews months later because it’s too late. We learn as we go and we apply those learnings to what we are doing today, tomorrow, next week. We think in similar ways about that so there is a confidence and a trust between us about how we go about our business and that allows us to keep moving forward,” added Nucifora.

David Nucifora interview: Beers with families helped Ireland past World Cup disappointment
Ireland were understandably dejected by their World Cup defeat - Getty Images/David Ramos

One of the criticisms is that Ireland leaned too heavily on a core group who played in all four pool games in a five-week period, as well as the quarter-final defeat.

“At the time we felt like it was the right thing to do because no-one knows the group better than the group itself, so we knew the selections we were making were the right ones,” insisted Nucifora. “We would have been really confident about how our players are conditioned. You see the way we play the game. It is a compliment to our staff for getting the players in the shape they are in for the coaches. All our players are able to play the way we want to play.

“There are little things we learned on the way on the pitch, things we have spoken about that are probably not for public consumption.

“You’ve got to be adaptable and flexible in this business, and you’ve got to make decisions based on what’s in front of you, in the here and now. I think that’s a real strength of this team - the way we play, the sort of players we’ve got, the skill sets we’re able to deliver. I think Andy would pride himself and the team prides itself on being able to deal with any circumstances put in front of them.

“That’s a really important indicator of what they’re about, the resilience that they show. They’ve got so much trust and confidence in each other as players and with their coaches and their staff. They just dust themselves off and go forward and that’s what they did after the World Cup.”

The appointment of the 34-year-old Peter O’Mahony as the successor to Johnny Sexton as Ireland captain made a statement on the desire for continuity, while Farrell turned his sights to backing up their Grand Slam triumph last season and told his coaching team: “Go make it happen.”

“Peter earned the right with his performances and the respect,” added Nucifora. “It was a mutual evolution for the team.  How long he remains in the role will depend on performances. Things will eventually unfold and become obvious as to how we move forward rather than try to premeditate things.”

David Nucifora interview: Beers with families helped Ireland past World Cup disappointment
Peter O'Mahony (left) is on course to lead Ireland to the 2024 Six Nations title - Getty Images/Sam Barnes

With such a solid foundation, the introduction of new players, such as Jack Crowley, Joe McCarthy, Ciaran Frawley and Calvin Nash has proved to be seamless, an evolution made more simple by the fact they have been integrated into the wider squad over the last couple of years. If competition for places has never been more fierce, Farrell’s masterstroke has been to create an environment that is also fun. “No-one wants to miss out,” added Nucifora.

The Australian’s involvement with Irish rugby is drawing to an end after 10 years. His last involvement will be overseeing Ireland Sevens teams at the Olympics in Paris this summer. He has been instrumental in prioritising the Sevens programme in a country where 15-a-side was king. Yet perhaps his greatest legacy has been a change in mindset.

“I am proud of how the Ireland team think and behave,” he added. “It is the legacy that they have built that has gone right through the Irish system. We have had a number of years now when our young players have watched the senior team consistently beat the top teams in the world.

“I when arrived, the mindset was: ‘well, we’ve never beaten New Zealand, we’ve never won in South Africa, we’ve never won a series in Australia or New Zealand’. That shift in how Irish people think about their ability to win is the most important thing. We have shifted how they think about themselves and what they are capable of. They are now comfortable with being the best, and have an expectation to win. In the past that is something Ireland were not good at.”

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