His­tory beck­ons for Le­in­ster great Nacewa

Vic­tory to­day would see the back be­come one of the most suc­cess­ful play­ers in the Euro­pean game

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - – Gerry Thorn­ley

When it comes to nam­ing Le­in­ster’s best over­seas sign­ing, it says ev­ery­thing about Isa Nacewa’s im­pact at his adopted home that there re­ally is no de­bate. Sim­ply the best, bet­ter than all the rest and most prob­a­bly will be for all time.

Gor­don D’Arcy has gone fur­ther and says that Nacewa has been Le­in­ster’s best player over­all in the pro­fes­sional era. To­day, Nacewa can take another step in ful­fill­ing that man­tle by cap­tain­ing Le­in­ster to their fourth Euro­pean Cup.

Were he to do so, Nacewa would join an ex­clu­sive club to have been part of four match-day-win­ning squads in Euro­pean Cup fi­nals, along with team-mates Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Johnny Sex­ton. The only other play­ers to achieve the feat thus far are Cé­dric Hey­mans (with Brive in 1997 and Toulouse in 2003, ’05 and ’10) and Frédéric Micha­lak (with Toulouse in ’03 and ’05, and Toulon in ’13 and ’15).

Hey­mans was a sub in all his four fi­nals, and an un­used one in the first two, while Micha­lak was scrumhalf, out­half, a re­place­ment scrumhalf and an un­used sub in his four. By con­trast, Nacewa will start his fourth fi­nal, hav­ing been an in­te­gral part of Le­in­ster’s pre­vi­ous three wins and in their all-con­quer­ing run to this de­cider, adding fur­ther to his ver­sa­til­ity by play­ing four games at in­side cen­tre.

There’s al­most noth­ing he can’t do. He can run, swerve, fend, tackle, take balls in the air and even kick goals at the drop of a hat, and can pretty much slip from one po­si­tion to any other in the back­line.

It was Michael Cheika who signed Nacewa, along with Rocky El­som and CJ van der Linde, for that break­through 2008-09 sea­son. Then 25, Nacewa had played a star­ring role in three Na­tional Pro­vin­cial Cham­pi­onship tri­umphs with Auck­land and played 48 times for the Blues, but hav­ing played one minute for Fiji against Scot­land, was thus de­barred from ever play­ing for the All Blacks.

Test rugby’s loss. Le­in­ster rugby’s gain.


Re­call­ing Nacewa’s sign­ing, Cheika told The Ir­ish Times this week: “I’d watched a lot of footage of him, and I couldn’t un­der­stand why he wasn’t play­ing for New Zealand. And then when I’d re­searched I found out that he’d played a minute or what­ever it was for Fiji, which ru­ined his el­i­gi­bil­ity [for the All Blacks]. But the guy was class, you could just see that from the way he played his footie.

“I did a three-day trip, first to South Africa and then to New Zealand. CJ was play­ing in Hamil­ton against the Chiefs and then I met Isa as well for break­fast.

“When you saw type of bloke he was and how good a buy he was, I felt he could also im­pact others be­cause of his at­ti­tude. It was a no-brainer. It was just a mat­ter of ‘how can we get him here?’.”

When Nacewa first ar­rived, he scored a try on his de­but at full­back against Cardiff at the RDS, and on his sec­ond start at out­half against the Ospreys he landed a cou­ple of drop goals. As well as carv­ing op­pos­ing play­ers in two, it was clear that Le­in­ster had signed quite a player. Alas, he also suf­fered a bro­ken arm which would side­line him for al­most three months, rul­ing him out of Le­in­ster’s first three Heineken Cup games be­fore mak­ing his de­but off the bench in the de­feat away to Cas­tres.

There­after though, he started 40 Euro­pean games in a row over five sea­sons.

“He ac­cli­ma­tised pretty quickly,” says Cheika. “His abil­ity to play in var­i­ous po­si­tions, from the wing to the play­maker, made him the com­plete player, be­cause what he brought was, and this is what many play­ers nowa­days strug­gle with, he brought a ver­sa­til­ity to the game which ap­plied to dif­fer­ent po­si­tions.

“You’re al­ways ask­ing wide play­ers to com­mu­ni­cate in so that the in­side play­ers don’t have to think and make all the de­ci­sions. Be­cause Isa could play on the in­side and on the out­side, he was the best com­mu­ni­ca­tor on the field.

“Peo­ple talk about play­ing what’s in front of them, he could do that be­cause he could com­mu­ni­cate what’s in front of him on the in­side. And then when he was on the in­side, he’d lis­ten to the out­side as well, so he had that skill.”

All Blacks radar

Back in his days at the Blues, Joe Roko­coko re­calls: “His nick­name was Mr Fixit. Any in­jury there and he was com­ing in to play. Like, from day one he cov­ered po­si­tions 10 to 15 be­cause he is such a tal­ented player. He could just ad­just to any po­si­tion, could play it like he had al­ways been there. He had a short run with Fjii when he was pretty much on the All Blacks radar.”

With Nacewa, El­som and van der Linde join­ing, and Felipe Con­tepomi al­ready there, to add to a golden era for Le­in­ster backs es­pe­cially, as Cheika puts it: “You started to look around the dress­in­groom and go ‘there’s no weak­nesses here. We can do ev­ery­thing.’ And you need a bit of that.”

Another of Nacewa’s man­i­fold strengths is that he brought so much dur­ing the Test breaks, when he was an en­dur­ing stan­dard bearer. “I think he had a huge im­pact on the other play­ers as well, apart from just his on-field per­for­mances,” says Cheika. “I hate the word pro­fes­sion­al­ism, but his de­sire to be well pre­pared had a knock-on ef­fect on his team-mates, who wanted to be like him and so wanted to do the same.”

Af­ter Nacewa’s match-win­ning try in the 17-10 quar­ter-fi­nal win over Le­ices­ter in 2011, D’Arcy joked: “It gets kind of bor­ing when he’s that good. Nacewa hardly missed a game that sea­son, and played ev­ery minute of Le­in­ster’s nine games en route to win­ning their sec­ond Heineken Cup, as he would when they re­tained the tro­phy the fol­low­ing sea­son.

Very phys­i­cal

“He’s also durable even though he plays the game very phys­i­cally. I re­mem­ber him win­ning a cou­ple of big col­li­sions in that ‘Blood­gate’ game,” says Cheika in ref­er­ence to the 6-5 quar­ter-fi­nal win away to Har­lequins which pre­ceded the semi-fi­nal vic­tory against Mun­ster in Croke Park and Le­ices­ter at Mur­ray­field in the fi­nal. “The other thing is that he could kick goals from any­where.”

In­deed, al­though his kick­ing out of hand might not be his strong­est suit, Nacewa has reg­u­larly filled in as an ac­com­plished goal-kicker at short no­tice.

“He can’t just leave it at that. He has to go and catch a few line-outs if he wants to be con­sid­ered one of the best,” jokes Cheika.

“He’s the Ge­orge Smith of the backs. He can play in ev­ery po­si­tion and he’s a great team man. It’s not that easy to come back when you’ve de­cided to fin­ish, and then you de­cide to come back again. And the im­pact he’s had again is out­stand­ing.”

In the week af­ter the 2012 tri­umph, Jamie Heaslip said: “Isa is prob­a­bly the best player I’ve played with. He’s got all the nat­u­ral at­tributes. His tack­ling is un­be­liev­able. His foot­balling prow­ess is not a skill you can learn and that comes into his tim­ing and the lines he cuts and his tech­nique, even when it comes to tack­ling. If Isa is the last de­fender, you’re like ‘best of luck lads, he’ll slice you in two’.”

Vic­tory to­day would make Nacewa and his three team-mates the most suc­cess­ful play­ers in the his­tory of Euro­pean rugby given they also were a part of the Chal­lenge Cup vic­tory in 2013, when Nacewa played ev­ery minute of the three knock-out games, scor­ing tries in the quar­ter-fi­nal against Wasps and semi-fi­nal against Biar­ritz.


To mark his re­tire­ment, Nacewa was then ser­e­naded by a packed and de­voted RDS to the fa­mil­iar chants of “Ee-saa, Ee-saa”, with Sex­ton lead­ing the way, as he has been known to do at train­ing ses­sions.

Roko­coko says of Nacewa’s two years away: “He rested, re­booted him­self in that two years away, added a lot . . . the amount of en­ergy he brings, he brings it to another level. Peo­ple pay at­ten­tion when he talks. He has full re­spect with what he brings back to the field. He has just grown to another level from what he was at the Blues.”

It is pretty un­com­mon for a player to re­turn to the top af­ter a two-year break, not least in his 30s. “It just shows what the club means to him ob­vi­ously. You think you’re re­tired, you are coach­ing skills back with the Blues and your for­mer club gives you a call, needs you. It shows the char­ac­ter of the peo­ple in the club he plays and is why he’s so highly re­spected. Play­ers on the out­side can see the re­spect. It has a big part to play this week.”

Nacewa’s sec­ond com­ing, as it were, has co­in­cided with a new coach­ing ticket and a new gen­er­a­tion off the prov­ince’s re­mark­able con­veyor belt.

“I’d never played with Isa be­fore,” noted Tadhg Fur­long this week. “You have a gist be­cause the lads al­ways spoke so highly of him and I was look­ing for­ward to meet­ing him and play­ing with him be­cause of that.”

They have enough mo­ti­va­tion as a col­lec­tive to reg­is­ter that fourth start to­day, but send­ing Nacewa off into the sun­set with a fourth win­ner’s medal would be a fit­ting Euro farewell.

“You would like to see it be­cause he’s a hell of a man first and fore­most,” said Fur­long. “You never hear him giv­ing out, com­plain­ing and when he takes to the field he’s al­ways on it. In train­ing he’s al­ways on it. I don’t know a whole lot about wing play but he doesn’t do a whole lot wrong. To do what he is do­ing, af­ter com­ing out of re­tire­ment, is re­mark­able.”

Nacewa’s ver­sa­til­ity is truly ex­tra­or­di­nary. Of his pre­vi­ous 59 starts for Le­in­ster in Europe, 13 have been at full­back, 11 on the right wing, four at in­side cen­tre, 29 on the left wing and two at out­half. Sure he even did a pro­fi­cient 10 min­utes at scrumhalf when Luke McGrath was yel­low carded in the open­ing pool game at home to Cas­tres, so much so that he sniped, broke two tack­les and scored one of 16 Euro­pean tries while McGrath was on the side­lines.

Yep, he could prob­a­bly have been a good scrumhalf too. Some player. A Le­in­ster leg­end, in need of one more coro­na­tion.

There’s al­most noth­ing he can’t do. He can run, swerve, fend, tackle, take balls in the air and even kick goals at the drop of a hat

Nacewa’s ver­sa­til­ity is truly ex­tra­or­di­nary. Of his pre­vi­ous 59 starts for Le­in­ster in Europe, 13 have been at full­back, 11 on the right wing, four at in­side cen­tre, 29 on the left wing and two at out­half


Isa Nacewa slips a tackle from Richard Wig­glesworth of Sara­cens dur­ing the quar­ter-fi­nal at the Aviva Sta­dium.

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