Isa Nacewa: ‘Sport can go ahead and hopefully this is the blueprint to do it’

Leinster legend on the reopening of New Zealand and the return of rugby action

New Zealand reopens Monday morning. A beacon of successful recovery in the time of Covid, their strict measures means much of the economy will never defrost, yet hope shines from Aotearoa – professional rugby has been revived.

The true guinea pigs for the return of “contact sport” (Leo Varadkar’s definition), rather than the naked aggressiveness of their Rugby League counterparts who, in Trumpian fashion, appear less cognisant of science, more desperate to fumble in a greasy till.

"The NRL is the NRL," said Isa Nacewa of bloody-minded neighbours launching a full season on May 28th. "It doesn't surprise me they went about it the way they did. Looking at them from afar we've always had a cheeky smile on our face. They do things their own way that's for sure. They were very aggressive about how they wanted to get their competition up and running but they might play the whole competition and it might prove the right decision."

This is the rider attached to everything Nacewa says: far less draconian restrictions across the Tasman Sea flattened corona’s curve at a similar pace.


Either way, rugby’s hibernation is over and come June 13th New Zealand’s five Super Rugby franchises, stocked full of established and prospective All Blacks, begin 10 weekends of derby matches.

“NZ Rugby and the players’ association in New Zealand have worked crazy hours to get through this process,” Nacewa explained. “They have been meticulous in how they did it, and maybe they took a backwards step after looking at the NRL.

“Everyone understands from a broadcasting point of view how important it is to get rugby going. That’s where the majority of the funds comes from.”

Unlike Ireland, where international ticket sales fund the game, TV money is the southern hemisphere’s lifeblood.

Collective training starts next week but players must, somehow, adhere to physical distancing with meetings initially restricted to groups of 10. One or two positive tests, which seem inevitable, will not necessarily mean quarantine for all.

“A lot of the players have taken pay cuts and they understand what the worst case scenario looks like for them. They are all itching to get back into the team environments and play some rugby.

“It will be such a good distraction for the nation rather than focusing solely on the 1pm press conference every day.

“Talking to the Chiefs boys, there will still be social distancing when eating. When doing the walk through they are not allowed contact. There are a lot of measures in place because the whole world will be watching.

“Sport can go ahead, which is a huge positive, and hopefully this is the blueprint to do it. So many people will be watching in hope that it goes smoothly and continues to be fluid in week 10 with a competition winner.

“Only then would it offer a blueprint for other sports to follow.”

The Nacewa story is no longer linear. Free-wheeling Fijian turned leader of Leinster men, the seemingly inevitable transformation into Coach Isa has taken a significant detour. He’s home for a start, outside Auckland, near those morning waves.

“Not yet man,” he said of coaching. “Got a lot of my plate on the financial side. I still have my weekends off to go surfing and before work. I am really enjoying that. It is cool to stay in touch with players all round the world but there will be a time, most definitely not at the moment.”

The 37-year-old is flat out as idle clients seek to secure their future as a registered financial advisor dealing in residential mortgages and insurance. The real estate market in New Zealand is nothing like the hellscape we know in Dublin.

“Financial plans for players is a lot of what I do. Business wise, there are a lot of people who do well in a crisis. The rich get richer but the smart also get richer.

“What’s been really interesting was the complete pause in the real estate market through lockdown. There was no settlements, no open homes.”

House moving was not classed as an essential service.

“Coming out of ‘alert level four’ there was a huge amount of delayed settlements and there will for the next few months so I have been flat out busy.”

The financial career expanded after linking up with his old Blues team-mate John Afoa, the former All Black tighthead who played three seasons in Ulster.

“Kiwis and rugby players in general like property. It is very different in New Zealand to the rest of the world in that it has always been strong. There is a huge demand for property in Auckland, in good areas. I lived in Ireland for 10 years so I know how hard it is to invest in property, so I streamlined it for rugby players based overseas.

“I have a good network of solicitors, to accountants, to building inspectors, to property managers who can be on the ground here so guys don’t need to be in New Zealand to purchase the property or have their finances looked after. That’s been the key focus.

“I didn’t push into the rugby circles straight away. I wanted to learn as much as I could. As soon as I touched base with John Afoa at Bristol word of mouth got around.

“I look after quite a few rugby players around the world, in Japan and Europe. The list is really long and keeps growing, which is cool.

“Finance can be scary after being a rugby player for 15 years. I don’t explain it with technical jargon because I don’t understand that either.

“Being brutally honest I show them the reality of what life looks like if you are not sorted. I do it in a matter of fact way. This resonates with players because they know I have been in their shoes.”

Alert levels are part of the Kiwi lexicon now. After the weekend life returns to level two as Nacewa drives into the office and his three daughters go back to school.

“Going a few days with no new cases is pretty phenomenal. The government wanted to stamp it out. Slow the curve. They predicted how it was going to go and it eventuated that way.

“Like, schools reopening on Monday, I would have never thought that possible three weeks ago.”

Parents are now forced to ask: will our children be safe or, more pertinently, will we be safe from our children?

“It is a big talking point. If it spikes the government has said we can go back up to level three or level four. If there is a case in the school the school locks down for 48 to 72 hours. Contact tracing continues. The whole school is steam cleaned.”

We discuss Varadkar’s All-Ireland final quip versus GAA president John Horan’s logical perspective on amateur sport only returning with a vaccine.

“Community sport, there is a big question if people will want to go back, is it safe? Nobody knows just yet.”

Still, New Zealanders’ joy is obvious; they are about to receive a gift that is woven into the fabric of their society, broadcast live from empty stadiums, which is nothing new, in what feels like a reward for the sacrifice of these past six weeks.

“We definitely slowed the curve, rapidly. I think it is a total of 1,400 cases and 1,200 have fully recovered. We have had 21 deaths.”

On Thursday, Ireland had 23,401 cases and 1,497 deaths. New Zealand’s elimination strategy was possible because its biggest neighbour is over 2,000 kilometres away, it controls all entry points to its islands and Auckland is four times less dense than Dublin.

“We saw what was happening in America and the rest of the world. There was also a lot of comparison with Ireland because of our size and population but being open to European [travel] for so long it wasn’t a good or fair comparison.”

Nacewa seems unaware that there is still no restrictions on people entering Ireland from the UK or EU and that people are asked to self regulate their 14 days in isolation. Returning residents and citizens to New Zealand are put into hotel rooms for two weeks before being allowed return home. Everyone else was turned away.

“The lockdown definitely worked in New Zealand but Australia didn’t go into full lockdown. They went into social distancing – what we would call alert level three – but they had a desire to keep the economy ticking over.

“I wouldn’t say Kiwis are questioning what we did but there is a divide about which was the right way to go about it.”

The problem with shutting down an economy, especially small to medium sized businesses, is the restart will happen without many of them. The tourism industry was been, at least temporarily, wiped out.

“Especially Queenstown, which lives for tourists and there was no overseas workers, so who knows what the ramifications might be. We probably won’t see the full impact for 12 months.

“But from a Covid point of view, it definitely worked.”

There is no guarantee that successfully combating the first wave of the virus will stand the test of time but the logic currently holds.

“The fact the banks crashed the world in 2008 – the GFC [global financial crisis] – meant we are a better position than we have ever been because the New Zealand government around 2011 brought in strict rules around how much capital banks must have on their books. So, from an economy point of view, the banks have a lot of money to lend out.

“Should we have done what Australia have done? I don’t know. The comparison will go on for a long time.”

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, has received global praise for how she has fronted the crisis.

“My wife really does like her. There’s always two sides to every argument. Without taking political sides, I think her leadership qualities will be talked about for a long time; her ability to communicate really clearly, to control the media. There will be just as many arguments on the other side that she didn’t do this or that but – just looking at her as a leader – it’s been phenomenal how she has taken everything on board.

“She has got a young daughter at home so she must have clocked up some serious hours with very little sleep.

“I think in years to come people will write about her leadership qualities. She had to deal with Christchurch only a year ago.

“She openly admitted we are not going to get everything right. There is another side who will question her but she’s definitely got the backing of New Zealand. That’s for sure.”

The worry for rugby players is how they rebound from this period of inactivity.

"Look at Dan Carter and big All Blacks who took six months' sabbatical before slowly being reintroduced and they looked invigorated. There's a lot of guys out there where this time off will benefit their career. So many of them are battered and bruised. It can be a positive."

Sure you took a two-year break?

“Two-year sabbatical! When I came back the body felt pretty good. Players just miss the mental stimulation but rugby is secondary to society.”

This even holds in New Zealand where the All Blacks pervade every nook and cranny. Speaking of those Unsmiling Giants, the Australian and New Zealand governments are working out a trans Tasman bubble.

“From a tourism point of view that would be great for both countries. The All Blacks are the big draw of course. Man, if there was a Test series against the Wallabies maybe that would be the first step into testing the waters for international travel and international sport.”