Isa Nacewa still making Leinster tick as Blues eye big time

Leo Cullen challenges players to step up as Premiership leaders arrive in Dublin

European Champions Cup quarter-final preview: Leinster v Wasps

Venue: Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm

TV: Live BT Sport

At the end of Leinster's usually sedate, business-like Leo Cullen and Isa Nacewa pre-match utterances, the Herald scribe grabbed the heart strings and tugged hard.


Hallelujah! We know Nacewa’s a special one from his consistently outstanding performances. We know because Cullen made him the captain of this young group. Leinster people know he’s one of them because he came back from Auckland. They know because his daughters can always consider themselves Irish.

We see it in the body language Gordon D’Arcy wrote about this week. We never hear the inspirational words he undoubtedly imparts behind the changing-room door but we see limb-severing tackles and sneaky breaks. Seeing is believing but the mask slipped on Friday afternoon as Nacewa provided an insight into why the All Blacks loss all those years ago has proved Leinster’s massive gain (remember, it was he who recommended Joe Schmidt).

With so many former Leinster players from the glory days in the media at present we hear all about the clear advantage Irish teams hold over richer, and physically superior English or French teams stocked with Southern Hemisphere mercenaries.

Take this stunning Wasps backline: Kurtley Beale’s magnificence has pushed the best fullback in South Africa, Willie le Roux, onto the left wing. Elliot Daly sounds like Brian O’Driscoll’s second favourite player whenever he mentions the silky centre Eddie Jones shoehorned onto the England wing. Then there’s electricity incarnate, Christian Wade, who Nacewa must contain at all cost.

Immature teenager

Wasps do grow their own. James Haskell was nurtured from immature teenager into filling Lawrence Dallaglio’s massive boots. But why let that get in the way of a good story about what makes the Leinster machine tick.

“I felt accepted very quickly,” said the 34-year-old Nacewa – who is locked in for at least another season in Dublin – about his arrival in 2008. “It took me a while to understand the shape of the European season. By the time I understood it we won our first European trophy.

“I was sitting in a meeting the following year, very early on in our pre-season, when I think I was classed as a NIQ, non-Irish qualified player, and Shaggy [Shane Horgan] stopped the meeting dead in its tracks and said ‘We don’t have any NIQs. We have Leinster players.’

“That coming from Shaggy, Jesus, how else do you not feel accepted? That’s the way it has been ever since. All my girls have been born here so I feel part of the furniture, that’s for sure.

“Look, we have an identity. We don’t talk about the shape of Wasps. We know what world-class players they are. But we are tight here. We really are. The club is in a great position. There is a great feeling around Leinster at the minute. We know with 50,000 tickets sold we are doing something right. There is a positive vibe about the place.”

Magical turn

Wasps have never cared for perceived Irish destiny. Not even Christian Cullen’s only magical turn in Munster red could deny the 2004 version of these English giants victory at the old Lansdowne Road. No reason why that momentous happening cannot be recreated.

Former Leinster players Marty Moore and Brendan Macken have been dropped, Macken from the squad entirely, as Wasps coach Dai Young floods his team with Six Nations champions Haskell, Elliot Daly, Joe Launchbury and Nathan Hughes.

In stark contrast, Leinster have lost Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip – men who have won everything European club rugby has to offer – but there's a compelling argument to suggest Joey Carbery's creativity from 15 and Jack Conan direct running improves the Leinster offence.

“This is their time to step up to the mark,” said Cullen.

Strap in, back in the Aviva, where more Test-match brutality is guaranteed. Leinster, aided by the Stuart Lancaster factor, to limp onwards. But it will come at a cost. That's also guaranteed these days.

LEINSTER: J Carbery; A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath; J McGrath, R Strauss, T Furlong; D Toner, H Triggs; D Leavy, S O'Brien, J Conan. Replacements: J Tracy, C Healy, M Bent, R Molony, J van der Flier, J Gibson-Park, F McFadden, Z Kirchner.

WASPS: K Beale; C Wade, E Daly, J Gopperth, W Le Roux; D Cipriani, D Robson; M Mullan, T Taylor, J Cooper-Woolley; J Launchbury (capt), K Myall; J Haskell, T Young, N Hughes. Replacements: A Johnson, S McIntyre, M Moore, M Symons, A Rieder, J Simpson, A Leiua, J Bassett.

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).

Betting: Leinster (-4 handicap) 10/11. Wasps (+4) 10/11.

Previous meetings: Wasps 51-10 Leinster (Jan, 2016), Leinster 6-33 Wasps (Nov, 2015), Wasps 20-20 Leinster (Jan, 2015).

Verdict: Leinster.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent