Tuesday 16 January 2018

Isa Nacewa: I couldn't bring myself to watch Leinster play after I left

Isa Nacewa in typical Leinster pose
Isa Nacewa in typical Leinster pose
Former Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt with Isa Nacewa, left, and Jonathan Sexton following their side's victory in the Pro12 Grand Final last year
Laura Butler

Laura Butler

OVER five seasons, rugby star Isa Nacewa helped Leinster rugby storm their way to victory and claim three Heineken Cup titles, the Amlin Challenge Cup and a RaboDirect PRO12 crown.

He was a vital ingredient to the hard-working squad potion for success and he threw himself into the on-field action with relentless vigour.

He also threw himself into Irish life and counts his former comrades among his closest friends. 

Now, 12 months on from his departure at the Blues and retirement from the jersey, the 31-year-old is still as attached to the province, and the country, as he ever was.

“I can’t lie, coming back here definitely feels a hell of a lot more familiar, like I was coming home - it feels normal,” he says.

“It’s exciting for me returning.”

So strong was the Kiwi’s connection to Leinster that he could not watch his old team mates play a match until very recently.

“I didn’t watch a Leinster game for a long time. I just couldn’t bring myself to watch it, even though I followed their progress online.

“I still talked to players before and after games too - it was a solid 11 months to actually sit down and watch them though.”

Isa is back in Dublin this weekend for the RaboDirect PRO12 final between Leinster and Glasgow.

He’s being hosted and fronting a competition by RaboDirect, who are finishing their three year sponsorship of the PRO12 contest tomorrow with the showdown in the capital. 

Arranged by sports management agency Navy Blue, helmed by Niall Woods, winners will get the chance to attend this weekend’s showdown with Isa and his fellow brand ambassador Ronan O’Gara, as well as enjoying pre- and post-match festivities with the two retired opponents.

Isa will be watching on from the sidelines - and wishing he was part of the action.

Getting behind the Blues is an easy ask for him; he even tells me that he was firmly in Ireland’s corner when we took on the All Blacks last November in the 2013 Guinness Series.

What he grapples with now is his inability now to contribute to the fight.

“I don’t miss the training, the diet or the gym, but when you can’t directly impact the result of a game, that’s when it hits home that your position has changed, things have moved on and you’re not part of it anymore,” he says.

Born in Auckand, Isa and his wife of four years Simone returned to their native New Zealand after the side-stepping twinkle toes hung up his boots last year.

It meant packing their bags, saying goodbye to their circle of confidantes and leaving their home in Dundrum with three beautiful daughters who were born and raised - up until that point - on Irish soil.

He left Ireland with a contract in place and is the mental skills coach with rugby league side Auckland Blues.

He’s fast to admit that it has taken a while to settle back into life in the southern hemisphere.

“Initially when we went back to Auckland it seemed as if it was just an extended holiday. Eventually you get questions like, ‘Dad so when are we going back to our other house?’ They remember things like the red carpet, or the much bigger playroom than they have now in New Zealand. Little things, but they are started to get used to it.”

Isa touched down in Dublin on Tuesday.

With jet lag brewing, one of the first things he did upon arrival was to return to the old stomping ground.

“I couldn’t sleep so I went for a walk around Milltown, Churchtown and Dundrum. I went past my old house - well actually, all four houses we rented over time when we were here,” he says.

“I brought a friend’s dog up to Marley Park, where I used to walk my own dog. And of course I had to take pictures of Hamleys for my girls. It was very nice, I must say.”

And within hours of going through passport control at Dublin airport, Isa had reunited with BOD and the boys for a spot of lunch.

“It was like being back home, I’m such good mates with so many of them.”

So would he consider a return to the Emerald Isle down the line?


He answers like any one in the public spotlight tends to respond to media when trying to be responsive and evasive at the same time: “I’d never say never”.

I probe for a more honest answer and he admits he would “strongly consider” adopting another address in the leafy suburbs that is the southside, but only if the right opportunity presented itself.  

“The question is more if we could still have the lifestyle we had when I was playing. I don’t know if I should say that, but it’s different when you’re working and we’ve come to accept that.

“We’d love to come back over, we love it here, but my wife is so close to her family too.”

Isa is in fact very glad in one sense that they left when they did, as two of Simone’s grandparents passed away at the tail end of last year.

“She misses Ireland as much if not more than me - everything from Powesrcourt, to Dundurm shopping centre, to Christmas.

“But timing wise, it couldn’t have been better to go back,” he says.

Isa will return to New Zealand on Sunday, after cheering on Brian O’Driscoll and the boys from his dry, comfortable spot in the stands.

Having hung up his boots, he is all to aware what Irish sporting legend BOD will be thinking when he exits the changing room for the final occasion.

Before draining our coffee mugs, I ask him about how the British and Irish Lion will be feeling in 24 hours.

“He’ll be so excited. A lot of people are bitter when they retire. But I genuinely want Leinster to do well - and Drico will be exaclty the same.”

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