History beckons for Leinster great Isa Nacewa
Victory today would see back become one of most successful players in European rugby
Isa Nacewa slips the tackle from Richard Wigglesworth of Saracens during the Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
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 scrum-half, out-half, a replacement scrum-half 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.”
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.
“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.