Nacewa aiming to ensure Auckland possess the mental resilience that defines all winners
Andy McGeady talks to the ex-Leinster star who is back in rugby as a mental skills coach with Auckland Blues
Isa Nacewa celebrates with his Leinster team-mates following victory over Ulster in the RaboDirect PRO12 Grand Final at the RDS in May. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Former Leinster favourite Isa Nacewa is settling into life back in New Zealand. Still only 31, his playing boots remain firmly on the shelf and he’s back in rugby as a mental skills coach in Auckland with the Blues. But his kids still think of Dublin as home. And what is a mental skills coach anyway?
The cold weeks approaching Christmas are some of the few memories that make him yearn for Dublin. “I didn’t think I was missing it about a month ago but, y’know, it’s just a special time of the year” said the New Zealander who retired to his homeland after the 2012/13 season. It’s not even the playing element he misses so much as “the RDS and Christmas time around Dublin – I’ve had it for the last five years”.
Nacewa, whose two-minute cameo for Fiji in 2003 made him one of the greatest one-cap wonders of all time, arrived at Leinster in 2008 from the Blues. He would spend five extraordinarily successful seasons with the province winning three Heineken Cups, an Amlin Challenge Cup and a Rabodirect Pro 12 title. In 2011 he became the first overseas player to be named IRUPA player of the year.
Now living with his young family just a few minutes away from their grandparents and with some TV work for Sky in the ITM Cup under his belt, all is well. But perhaps not yet perfect. With all three of his children having been born in Ireland, the four-year-old twins still refer to their house in Dundrum as their “real house” and, he said, “every once in a while they ask when we’re going back”.
“He’s an incredible young man with a huge future in our game” said his new boss Blues coach John Kirwan.
Nacewa said he had sat down with Kirwan where they talked about his success at Leinster and how he had mentally prepared to put himself in the best position to succeed every week. They have called their goal “Bone-Deep Preparation”.
“I have guys who are 6ft 4in and can run like the wind. Once you create a lot of these athletes . . . what’s the differentiator?” said Kirwan. “The x-factor is the ability to mentally prepare for a game of rugby.”
Kirwan estimates that most young players when asked what they did to prepare for a match at the weekend might say they had put in five hours in the gym, perhaps eight hours on the field. Preparing the mental side? “Nothing, or if they did it’s just scratching the surface”.
“Just like strength and conditioning work it all comes down to mastering technique and then practice, practice, practice,” said Dr Phil Hopley, former Wasps player and now a consultant psychiatrist.
He described mental skills coaches as “mind performance coaches” who “help players to develop or improve the psychological skills which enhance training and performance under challenging conditions.”
When at Leinster Nacewa said he always found himself carrying a few niggly injuries yet playing each week.
“I thought I performed pretty consistently most weeks and I think a lot of that was down to mental prep” said Nacewa. “Lots of players rely on physical talent to get them to the top. It might do that but it won’t win you championships.”