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Two Nations on the Move

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News comes in of a double appointment at Rugby Australia.

Peter Horne takes over as High Performance Director, overseeing every aspect of rugby. David Nucifora, long-serving in the same post with Irish Rugby, joins him as HP Advisor.

Ireland

Nucifora has come in for a lot of criticism in Ireland for his neglect of the women’s 15s programme.

Significantly, he won’t return to his native Australia till after the Paris Olympics in March. In his favour the men’s team is cock of the walk, ranked No 1 in the world.

It is just possible that this change could mark a shift in priorities; Scott Bemand must certainly hope so. He has a support group of nine, including Niamh Briggs. They would all be calling for the same improvements.

The usual counter-argument is that Ireland does not have sufficient resources (of players and funding) to sustain both formats with total commitment. Players still switch between 7s and 15s with bewildering frequency. The worst effect was seen in the 2023 Six Nations results. While the Irish squad is certain to put on a better performance in 2024, their problem is that the five other nations will be advancing too.

The Celtic Challenge will help to widen the pool available to Bemand and his fellow selectors; but that remains a long-term project. At best they can hope to spot a handful of young players worthy of promotion to the elite group.

Australia

Horne returns to his homeland after many years in a similar post with World Rugby. Amongst other roles he was General Manager at Saracens. This is a plum appointment for RA.

It will be fascinating to see how he goes about sorting the multiple problems facing the Wallabies and the Wallaroos. The departure of Eddie Jones has kicked up another dust storm of controversy.

The one bright light is the eminence of the Wallaroos’ 7s squad. Their target is a gold medal at the Olympics; it is perfectly within reach.

But Horne faces strong pressure to rebalance the 15s game. In the recent WXV the Wallaroos proved once again what an outstanding unit they can be with the minimum of preparation. After losing to England, they beat Wales (25-19), and, more surprisingly, France (29-20).

Now for the first time they have a full-time head coach in place, and she happens to be Jo Yapp, another inspired choice. You can imagine her bending the ear of the people in charge, demanding – ever so politely – what these days is called a level playing field.

Her players will be asking: how about giving us the same benefits (contracts, regular training facilitiesp, plenty of test matches), such as the 7s girls enjoy? There have been promises, but no commitments yet.

One intriguing development would be an extension of the Super Rugby tournament. For 2024 it will comprise six franchises, five in Australia plus Fijiana Drua. The hope is it will go on to reach other parts of Oceania.

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