Fighting for the Blues not foreign to Nacewa
Winger Isa Nacewa has no hesitation in saying he would ideally like to finish his career at Leinster, writes GERRY THORNLEY
ISA NACEWA tends to stand out from the crowd, on or off the pitch. But he can also do incognito. With his new home a short distance from training, he’s taking to cycling, so he arrives at Wilde and Green in Milltown one afternoon, hops off his bike, and removes his helmet and balaclava. Admittedly, while the outer T-shirt isn’t strictly luminous, it is a bright yellow, sleeveless Brazilian soccer shirt.
Dublin, and especially this part of Dublin, has long since become home for Isa and his wife, Simone. The twins, Mia Rose and Ellie Milika, will be three in November and have been joined by another Irish-born girl, Lucy Annie.
This is his fourth season with Leinster. “Where did those four years go?” he wonders.
As with the twins’ premature arrival, Nacewa’s mum, Barbara, flew over, initially to stay for three weeks, but is still here four weeks on, and is staying until the end of the season. Leinster’s seasons tend to drag on, but the later the better of course. With three young girls, the thought of a long-haul flight home to a New Zealand winter doesn’t appeal, and summer holidays will be in Portugal.
They’d always had it in their minds they’d return to NZ when the twins were ready for school, and the recent one-year contract to extend his stay until the summer of 2014 would fit in with that timeframe. But Simone and the girls are happy here. “So when the time comes around if things work out and I can stay at Leinster longer, you know, for sure.” Still only 29, ask him if he would ideally finish his career here and he says: “Ah yeah, hands down.”
He uses the words “hands down” frequently to emphasise something. He shouldn’t admit it, but he has no desire to go to France or England. He cites the way virtually the entire Leinster squad has re-signed for next season and beyond, and the culture created first by Michael Cheika and extended by Joe Schmidt – not least those famous Monday morning reviews which ruthlessly highlight any lack of work-rate off the ball.
“It’s not often you see it anymore, someone not working for each other. Every single one of us wants to work for one another and not be seen as being lazy. Now you can pick out teams that are lazy when you watch them on videos and Joe has created a culture here that sort of stopped that.”
THE CHEIKA LEGACY
Cheika’s fourth season, 2008-09, was Nacewa’s first, and culminated in the breakthrough Heineken Cup win. He had heard of the Mr Angry stories before, of Cheika walking off half-way through sessions, though by then the Monday morning post-defeat storms had abated a little.
“Cheiks was the one that created the culture that’s still moving today. I only got the last two years of his five-year reign but from what I heard things were a lot different when he first started. Yet he changed that gradually and that led to the Heineken final (in 2009) and the mentality was that we had won it once but it wasn’t just going to be a one-off. We want more of it, type of thing, and that’s what Cheiks created.”
Cheika also fostered the academy conveyor belt. “Cheiks believed in the younger guys, he gave guys opportunities and they’re benefiting from that now. They stuck with Leinster, they didn’t move anywhere else and now they’re getting regular game time through the Pro12 and a lot of the guys are getting a shot at the Heineken.”
THE SCHMIDT EFFECT
“He is the Mr Rugby in my mind. He taught me most of the stuff that I know about a backline in the three years I was with him at the Blues. He had a young mind into the game and he really knows the game of rugby.”
– Isa Nacewa, The Irish Times, October 2009
Perhaps it sewed the seeds of an idea for chief executive Mick Dawson, manager Paul McNaughton, or someone. In any event, after Cheika gave notice of his impending departure early in the 2009-10 season, Leinster unearthed another relatively unknown coach who had been assistant to Vern Cotter at Bay of Plenty and latterly Clermont, either side of that three-year stint at Auckland Blues.
“There were so many guys saying he’d never been a head coach yet the whole of bloody Leinster got a shock when he came on board,” reflects Nacewa. “I think that was in the back of everyone’s mind. It was in the back of my mind, he had never been a head coach but obviously his time at Clermont had changed him a lot and he just slipped straight into the role.”
Schmidt had to adapt to working with a squad backed up by indigenous young players as opposed to mostly bought-in Test players. He had to adapt, and so too Leinster. Nacewa cites the recent win away to the Dragons with a completely changed side from the one which had beaten Clermont the week before. That was a second win at Rodney Parade in succession, whereas Leinster had lost on three previous visits with callow sides.
“We have won more away games this year than we have home games. There was never a doubt we were going to Dragons to get beaten. Even the young guys have an expectation in their head. That’s why Leinster is so strong at the moment.”
In Cheika’s last season, 2009-10, Leinster averaged 1.82 tries a game (51 tries in 28 games) but in the last two years it has upped it to 2.3, with 145 tries under Schmidt in 64 games.
As with Cheika, Schmidt gave Leinster licence to play. “But with that comes the responsibility to look after the ball and I think that’s where everyone, old guys and young guys, have taken that responsibility on. You enjoy playing with it but you don’t want to be losing the ball all the time.”
It possibly helped Schmidt that he inherited a team that had lost a semi-final away to Toulouse. Winning in ’09 had shifted the goalposts. Thereafter it was only winning trophies would satisfy this high-achieving group, but two Heineken Cups in a row would have been tough to follow.
Instead, as Nacewa puts it, “we had a bitter taste in our mouth after losing to Toulouse. We were clearly beaten across the board. They were just the better team that day but you just felt like you had got so far and fell short and you had to live with that the whole of the summer. And I did spend the whole summer thinking about it really.”
Nacewa was outstanding at fullback in the Cup-winning year of ’09 and especially last season – witness his virtuoso try against Leicester in the quarter-final against Leicester at the Aviva and IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year award. This season he has played 13 of his 23 games at fullback, yet he has happily stepped aside for the Euro games when Rob Kearney has stepped in.
“Ah, Rob is in outstanding form. I’m more than happy to go to the wing when he’s playing. I love playing with Rob. His game has developed so much since when we first got there, he’s a real team player these days and he’s playing outstanding rugby.”
Maybe it’s his Fijian extraction that makes him such a nice, even-tempered, laid-back bloke. He tries not to think about rugby when he’s away from the game, and having a young family is the perfect distraction. “Since the girls were born I brought a game home once and Simone noticed the difference in me.”
It was the defeat to Glasgow last September, their first home defeat in two years.
“You had such a responsibility when the Irish lads were away at World Cup. I was so bloody annoyed and it just got to me. I had to sort of kick myself and say ‘hey you can’t do that with kids anymore. Park rugby and leave it behind’.”
Nacewa’s dad, Isa senior, hails from Nadi (pronounced Nandi) on the western side of the main island of Viti Levu, where many of its 40,000 or so population are Indian or Fijian, and the region has a higher concentration of hotels and motels than any other part of Fiji.
Nacewa snr attended boarding school there before moving to Auckland when he was 17. Along with his brother and three sisters, Isa jnr grew up in One Tree Hill, and he used to watch his dad play club rugby as “a half-back/flyhalf”.
“Dad was a very good rugby player. He played with Maorist in Auckland and I heard all the stories but when you’re a Fijian kid back then being sent to New Zealand, rugby was just purely something on the side. You were sent to do your university, get an education and make a life. That was priority number one and dad’s still working in the same job that he started in. It’s a cross between Fontera and Mainland, an office job, and he’s been in the same job for about 35 years.”
Nacewa has always regarded himself as a New Zealander, whose dream of playing for the All Blacks was scuppered by naively accepting an invitation to play for Fiji in the 2003 World Cup when he was brought on for one minute. His failed attempts to become eligible for the All Blacks and subsequent rejection of entreaties to play for Fiji have been well chronicled, but a small part of him remains Fijian.
“I grew up watching New Zealand-Fiji Sevens rivalry and the days of [Walter] Serevi versus Eric Rush, so when it comes to sevens I’m 50-50.”
Nacewa didn’t need much encouragement from his dad to play. “I was just like sort of every other New Zealand kid. I played rugby at five and mum and dad would take me every weekend.”
His first five or six years playing rugby were with his dad’s club, before he went to Auckland Grammar School in his teens. “We were a good school team. In 1999 we won it [Auckland Schools’ Senior Cup]. In 2000 we won 18 games in a row and then lost two of our last three and lost both finals. I remember it very clearly because we lost to St Kents [St Kentigern College] who had Jerome Kaino, Joe Rokocoko and John Afoa. We beat them in the first match and then they beat us in the finals when it counted,” he recalls, almost with a hint of bitterness by Nacewa’s standards. “John [Afoa] reminds me of it all the time.”
He went to Auckland University to study PE, and played with Grammar Carlton, a club for Grammar old boys. It was a chance to play with his mates. Playing professional rugby hadn’t entered his head.
“I was happy playing club rugby. I ended up actually playing ‘Prems’, which is AIL level when I probably should have been playing 21s or Colts.
“It was old-school rugby. Straight after the game there was a big chilly bin full of beers in the changing room and the first thing you did after the game was have a beer. I was 19, 18 even, and playing with 30-year-old-plus men but, hey, win, lose, draw you were having a beer.”
But the Auckland Colts coach, Shane King, encouraged him to have a trial, and after two seasons with the Colts he graduated to Auckland’s provincial side.
Although they won the NPC in 2003, Nacewa regards the following season as his breakthrough year. “Auckland had probably its worse season we had had for a long time but personally I was playing better. I hadn’t been at fullback till then but in 2004 I played the whole season at fullback.”
He scored two tries in his first game there, albeit when Bay of plenty, with Schmidt the assistant, took the Ranfury Shield off them.
With Schmidt part of the Blues coaching ticket, Nacewa was picked for their Super Rugby squad in ’05. In their third game, Nacewa roomed with Carlos Spencer. “I was nervous as can be. This is Mr Carlos Spencer and this is my first year of Super Rugby. He had the remote. He controlled the TV that week.
“Carlos played 96 games in a row for the Blues and Joe was the only person that dropped him, and then he broke his cheek bone so he didn’t actually play again for the Blues before he left.”
In awe of his celebrated team-mate, soon he felt sympathy for Carlos. “He was getting grief left, right and centre. That’s what the New Zealand public was like towards him. He had his absolute diehard fans and then the rest of the country hated him but I had huge respect for him. He got criticised probably more than anyone throughout his career. Once you got to know him he’s quiet, really quiet. I probably didn’t realise that until he had left and I ended up playing a Barbarians match with him and he just said: ‘hey, how’s it going?’ and started asking questions about me and stuff. Just hands down a nice guy; completely laid-back and he told me then once he left New Zealand was when he finally got to relax.”
One of the effects of Nacewa’s rugby career meant abandoning his four-year PE degree with a year to go. But when he was with the Auckland Blues, an agreement between Auckland University and the players association offered free education at Auckland University, so along with Ben Arzinger, David Gibson and Afoa they did a Bachelor of Business together.
“The rest of my time it was literally playing Playstation or eating out. So it was a wise opportunity. You get offered free education at a university which, in New Zealand, normally you’ve got to pay for it all.”
Nacewa was rubbing shoulders with a backline featuring Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett, Joe Rokocoko, Rua Tipoki, Luke McAllister and Tasesa Lavea.
“When I first started there pre-season, I felt out of my depth because they were running angles I hadn’t even dreamed of and didn’t even know about, or even blocking angles. I remember Mils sort of being a decoy and I was on the defending team. He just stopped me and I was like ‘hang on, you can’t do that’. It’s not nice when you feel like you’re out of your depth but I suppose, thinking back to it, it was a big learning curve and I suppose a lot of people go through it.”
His debut was away to the Otago Highlanders. “I remember Joe saying to me, get into the game early, and that stuck in my head because even to this day you want to make a tackle or get a touch on the ball within the first five minutes or else you feel like you’re floating through the first half before something happens.”
Early on, the Highlanders number eight, Paul Miller, charged at Nacewa. “He was huge, a big lad, 120kgs and he caught the ball and ran straight at me and I just thought ‘I’ve got to tackle him’ and that was how I got into the game. It’s really stuck with me to this day and it’s something I tell young guys, get a touch on the ball early or get a tackle in early.”
He adapted better than he gives himself credit for, scoring three tries in the 2005 campaign. The following year, with McAlister injured, Nacewa moved to outhalf, retaining the position as McAlister returned in midfield, but it was 2007 (Schmidt’s last) when the Blues finally reached the play-offs for the first time since their third triumph in 2003.
“I was talking about it actually the other day, saying how it was such a fun campaign. It’s similar to Dublin. We won seven out of our first eight, didn’t hear a thing from the media, lost another game and we got absolutely thrashed. It was the year Troy Flavell came back from Japan, and his impact was amazing.”
Auckland also won the ITM Cup in 2007, but the team was breaking up. Howlett was heading to Munster, and other team-mates since 2003 were leaving or retiring. “I didn’t really want to be there when those guys weren’t there. It was such a quality, quality team, and I think that’s when Auckland rugby really started to change. I just thought it was a good time for us to up and leave.”
With Schmidt also relocating to Clermont, Nacewa resolved to move after the 2008 Super 14.
“I didn’t want to come to the Northern Hemisphere and get stuck playing wet-weather, forward footy which the Premiership would be renowned for. I looked at the guys in the team, O’Driscoll, Horgan, Contepomi, D’Arcy, and I knew I was coming to a team that liked to play and that was a big deciding factor.”
Last week he played his 100th game for Leinster. “I never expected to play 100 games for any team. It would take eight to 10 years to do that in New Zealand, playing every single match every single weekend. To reach 100 is a huge achievement and it ended up being a target for me. I wanted to play 100 games, so fingers crossed the game rate just keep ticking over.”
With another two seasons free of injury, conceivably 150 might loom into view one day. He looks at Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and others playing into their mid-30s and deduces: “Hands down, the strength and conditioning coaches here are light years ahead of the teams I’ve been involved in. These guys really know their stuff, Jason Cowman, Dan Tobin. they know how important recover is and how to individualise things.”
Nacewa was on a radio show with Brad Thorn four days after the latter’s arrival. “He said to me ‘everyone expected me to retire when I was 32. Why retire if your body feels good and you feel right and are still competitive?’”
Thorn truly astounds Nacewa. “He’s pushing 450 first-class matches and he’ll have one of the most accomplished careers with an oval ball by the end of the season. What a signing! His enthusiasm just rubs off on the whole team. Strongest in the gym and every training session he’s the first one out. His willingness to help younger guys is unbelievable.”
Like other non-Irish qualified players, Nacewa recently found himself in the firing line when the IRFU proposed they could not sign new contracts with the provinces, and although they relented in granting Nacewa a one-year extension, the union stressed this did not signify a change in policy.
“I’ve got a family now and family come first so it’s always a bit of a shock to the system. But I’ve huge respect for the IRFU for extending my current contract. They didn’t have to but they did so I’ve got to thank the IRFU for that. It still might change the shape of teams in the future but a lot of the foreign players here at the moment have re-signed so it’s a good thing.”
He doesn’t like to think of himself as a foreign player, and to that end took particular satisfaction in something Shane Horgan said when this vexed matter came to the surface last December. “Shane Horgan stood up at a [Leinster] meeting and said ‘we don’t have foreign players, we have Leinster players’. And that’s coming from Shaggy.
“To hear those words come from a guy of his status means that we are part of a team. I have the biggest respect for Shaggy; what he’s done for Leinster on and off the field is ridiculous. He is just a top bloke and he’s always given us support, so for him to stand up at a meeting and say that makes you feel part of a team. And we are, we’re part of a team, we’re part of a culture and we just want to see things go forward.”
When, one day, he does return to New Zealand, he’ll be checking on Leinster’s results more than anyone’s. He’s a fan for life now. “And I can’t wait for that time to come where I can actually come back and watch games at the RDS as a retired player. I’m really looking forward to that.”
Part of this is due to the support, “the best that I’ve ever played with” even if the ribbing for the ‘Eee-sah’ Eee-sah’ Eee-sah’ chants is as bad as ever.
“I’ve had enough stick from Jonny Sexton starting it up at airports and stuff. He kicks it off more than bloody anyone these days.”
Nacewa was particularly blown away by the colour and support generated by the 3,000 or so in Bordeaux for the semi-final. “Thorny said after the match ‘it was a war’, and that’s coming from him and the amount of games he has played.”
Losing that, Nacewa admits, would have been a more bitter pill to swallow than Toulouse two seasons ago. All the work of the last 10 months distilled into two weekends. “It’s about spending the summer holidays with your trophies in your cabinet. You work so hard to get into that position and then it just comes down to who shows up on the day. They have an unbelievable team and they’ve looked after their players. You expect Ruan and Wannenburg and Muller and all of them to perform, but some of the young guys have been outstanding as well. Their 23 is as strong as anyone’s, they’ve a bit more rest and they’ll be in absolutely fine form come that final.”
Yet it can still be all or nothing over the next two matches. “This is why we play the game. It has taken so much hard work to get here, and now two Irish teams in the final of the Heineken Cup. It’s going to be an absolute occasion, and it’s going to be another war.”
As ever, he’ll be ready for it. He puts on his balaclava, helmet and Brazilian top, and cycles home to Simone and the three girls.