Thursday 21 September 2017

Analysis: Ageless Nacewa shows new signings and young guns the way – despite positional switch

Leinster's Isa Nacewa. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Leinster's Isa Nacewa. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As it struggles for oxygen between the conclusion of the GAA championships, the beginnings of the Premier League and the stuttering culmination of Ireland's World Cup qualification campaign, the rugby season at this time of year has an easy getting-to-know-you feel.

Pre-season blends into the early games with everybody fully aware that there is plenty of time to make up for a bad result when the full internationals return and for fans it's an opportunity to assess the new faces in the squad and the high-profile signings in particular.

If the new players at Leinster, whether young players or established Test players like Scott Fardy, thought they could ease their way into the campaign then Isa Nacewa left them in no doubt of what was expected.

The New Zealander is 35 now, yet here he is operating in a new position in one of the Guinness PRO14's less glamorous stopovers and leading by example in the unfamiliar No 12 jersey.

He may not have started at scrum-half yet, but his try-scoring cameo against Castres last season when filling in for the sin-binned Luke McGrath showed he is capable of turning his hand to anything. A stint at flanker seems the obvious next step.

Winning man of the match, Nacewa's stats were impressive but they don't tell the full story of the impact the skipper made with his crunching tackles, good decisions and hard carrying - he took to his new role like a duck to water.

Rory O'Loughlin pictured during Leinster squad training at the UCD in Belfield, Dublin. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Rory O'Loughlin pictured during Leinster squad training at the UCD in Belfield, Dublin. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Standing almost opposite him, was a contemporary and fellow veteran of the 2005 Lions tour: Gavin Henson.

Both have been professional rugby players for more than a decade, but they each stretch the definition of 'professional' to the seams at either end of the spectrum.

He hit some major heights, particularly in the early years, but the Welshman will be remembered at least as much for his off-pitch misdemeanours, reality television appearances and celebrity status as for his Grand Slam-winning exploits.

Nacewa's international career only amounted to a one-cap cameo for Fiji at the 2003 World Cup, but there is no denying that his career has had more substance to it than that of Henson who Bernard Jackman is relying on to kick goals and lend experience to his cause.

How the Carlow native would love to have a Nacewa figure to show his young guns the way, rather than his contemporary who kicked his goals but made the kind of mistakes a man of his experience shouldn't.

For Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, there are no such worries about Nacewa, whose decision-making and commitment showed what is required to be part of the Leinster team.

Although he has had a few uncharacteristic lapses on the biggest stage since he came out of retirement and returned to the blue jersey two seasons ago, the fact that he shows up to work with such determination and high standards means that the coterie of prodigious youngsters at the eastern province know what is expected of them on a day-to-day basis.

For his young centre partner Rory O'Loughlin, who is still finding his way at the top level, the experience alongside him is invaluable.

"He's definitely an easy player to play with, he helped me massively last year when I was playing on the wing and he was at full-back.

"He talks through games and he sees defensive pictures very quickly and communicates them out," the 23-year-old said this week.

"I think that moving into the centre he gets to bring his physical edge a bit more, which you saw very early on with his first carry.

"Him playing outside at No 12, he puts in hits and carries the ball like that, it's very nice for a 13 because defenders very quickly have to respect him, so it gives you more space out wide."

His consistency and excellence also shows the likes of Fardy that this is no retirement camp and the Australian certainly looked like he means business.

Fardy and Nacewa were two of 21 overseas signings lining out for the provinces at the weekend, some of whom, like Bundee Aki and Tyler Bleyendaal, have naturalised and made Ireland their home from home and others, like Charles Piutau, are passing through.

No overseas signing has bought into their adopted province like Nacewa and his capture by Michael Cheika in 2008 must count as the best piece of business by any Irish province.

Tomorrow night, he'll lead Leinster out at the RDS for the first time this season as they welcome a team who once matched them in the under-performing capital city club stakes - the Cardiff Blues.

Then they break new ground when heading down to South Africa, the first Irish team to make the PRO14's newest, longest journey.

Enduring their longest run without a trophy in a decade, there is pressure on the boys in blue to deliver silverware this year and they look well set to take the final step given their respective strength.

Their Lions are still some way from making their return, however, and until then it is their consistent skipper who will continue to set the tone.

Irish Independent

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