An exile with staying power
Isa Nacewa wants to remain at Leinster but new rules might force him to pack his bags, says Brendan Fanning
If you think it has been an uncomfortable few weeks for the IRFU, who came up with a faulty model to limit the number of foreign players in Ireland, and lobbed it onto the shelves without even an instruction leaflet, then it has been an equally hard time for Isa Nacewa.
Of course the Leinster star is not alone in this group, but his contribution to the cause means his case will continue to be a rallying point for protesters.
Rocky Elsom will remain untouchable in Donnybrook for the force of his impact, compressed as it was into a series of game-changing performances over a five-month period. And Felipe Contepomi stands alone for length of service and dedication to the jersey over six seasons. Nacewa is unique however: he is the only import to start both of Leinster's Heineken Cup wins. And while Stan Wright was common to both squads, injury reduced him to a walk-on part at the end of the second campaign.
So Nacewa is special -- not just for the way he plays, but the number of times he has delivered on big days. Now that those days are numbered, does he feel like he's being turfed out of the country?
"It's a hard one," he says. "Ah, I've got three Irish children, technically -- I've three daughters who were all born here, the twins and little Lucy, and knowing that at the moment your contract is up is a bit hard. I don't want to go to another club, you know? I want to play out my days at Leinster and finish at Leinster. And that might be at the end of next season. It's a strange one. If I knew I was coming here on a one-contract term I think it would be a different feeling, but I definitely bought into the whole Leinster culture and me and my wife and children are really settled here. It was tough to take."
Isa Nacewa's earliest rugby memories are of "frosty Saturday mornings, playing barefoot in Marist." It was 1987, and he was five. Later the same year his dad brought him to Eden Park for the first time, to see the All Blacks in the inaugural World Cup. He remembers John Kirwan kicking plastic Coca-Cola branded balls into the stand before the game. He caught one -- which he has to this day.
When the time came he went to a big rugby school, but it was as much for the education as the sport, and, when he left, hanging with his mates and enjoying the university life was as far as he was looking. Nacewa was heading towards the teaching profession when his club coach did the game a favour and pointed him in the direction of Auckland Colts (under 21). Once on the ladder there he skipped ahead of others who had come up through the system on representative teams. Talent does that.
When Nacewa left Auckland for Leinster in 2008, the timing was perfect. The squad was breaking up, and after building a reputation in NPC and Super 14 rugby, in the end in front of dwindling crowds, he yearned for something else. Leinster filled that need.
You may remember the early weeks of Nacewa's career here. He scored from long range on his debut in Cardiff, then he came off the bench in a dismantling of Edinburgh at the RDS -- and looked comfortably the most skilful handler on the park -- and in the next round, against the Ospreys, he went and broke his arm in the last play of the game. Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson remembers bumping into him in Donnybrook soon after the operation. Nacewa apologised for getting hurt.
Not a great time to suffer his first broken bone in a lifetime playing the game, but despite snapping his radius -- and needing a plate and six screws to fix it -- the outcome wasn't all bad. With no league action during the November internationals he actually missed very little rugby. And as a memento he has a nice scar covering most of the journey from elbow to wrist, skirting the border of a tattoo bearing his surname. Eh, did he fear waking up one day and forgetting who he was?
"I dunno -- I was young, and I always wanted a tattoo. And I still want more. It was quite funny: afterwards the surgeon (and former Olympic swimmer) Gary O'Toole goes, and I was in a cast up to my elbow, 'Oh you've a tattoo'. And I thought: 'Oh no, he's cut through the middle of it!' But he said that at the last minute he saw it and had to change his surgery around to come in from a different angle. Hats off to Gary for that."
The rehab was quick, and thereafter Nacewa's contribution grew with each game because he became a better player. This is not always the case with imports. With Nacewa however he developed a kicking game out of hand and off the tee that sees him clinch games -- most recently against Connacht. When he came to Dublin first he couldn't kick snow off a rope. It was hard to credit, how a man could move with such balance and grace and then look like he was half-cut when he went to kick the ball. When he was with the Blues in Auckland there were other players who performed that trick. Simple as that. Which makes you wonder how much notice they take of the northern hemisphere game where there is a much higher premium on footballing ability.
"It's a topic I've talked about with a few people," he says. "When you're in New Zealand and playing for a New Zealand team there is this sense that it's the greatest competition you're part of, and I think that's the importance the New Zealand Rugby Union puts on their players. So you wouldn't spend much time at all looking at rugby outside what you're playing. Yet you come over here and it's the same: you know the Super 15 is going on but it's not as if you'd spend your whole time watching it and you wouldn't even know the names of some players playing in it. It made me realise what an awesome competition the Heineken Cup is -- once I started playing in it I realised that Super Rugby wasn't the be all and end all in the world. The Heineken Cup is a brilliant competition I think, the way it's all set up, but it wasn't until I got over here that I realised that."
The Six Nations was a bit of an eye-opener for him as well. We remember former Wallaby captain Nick Farr Jones some years ago coming across like a kid on Christmas morning when he went to his first Championship game in Dublin.
"I'd have been in the same boat," Nacewa says. "I didn't know how big it was until I got here. The fans here at the RDS for Pro12 and then the Heineken Cup are just unbelievable, the best fan base I've seen, and then during Six Nations the buzz around town? Even trying to get into a decent pub to watch the game, which I can do -- I get the opportunity to do that, which is amazing. And there just isn't that atmosphere down in New Zealand for Tri Nations stuff."
Even so, he wouldn't have minded being back there for the World Cup. Just to breathe it all in. The story of his one cap off the bench for Fiji has been well told, and he has spoken of how his success with Leinster has compensated for the absence of an international career. Still, Nacewa is a Kiwi, born and raised, and there was a bit of homesickness a few months back when the world was tuned into the activities up and down the two islands.
While that was going on, he was producing winning performances for Leinster, with critical contributions against both the Dragons and Scarlets, when they had 14 players away on RWC duty. Well, that and bracing himself for the return to a state of deprived sleep once his new daughter arrived before Christmas. He remembers a game in 2010 against Connacht, soon after the twins were born, when he let a ball bounce because it had been up in the sky so long he just felt himself drifting off. Having planned to catch some sleep on the train to Galway, instead there was a hen party too close for comfort, and he brought all of three hours' rest to the game.
He's back there now, looking at the away games and feeling a bit guilty that a hotel bed is the most attractive aspect of the trip. So he groans when you mention Firhill this afternoon. And then thinks better of it. Somewhere in between the two is the challenge of Glasgow, which he says has Leinster on edge.
"Definitely. They're a really good side at home. Tight pitch. And a proud team too. They'll really be up for it and it'll be a very physical game up front and especially around the ruck area. Even they themselves said that they got bullied off the ball last time, and when someone says that to you you're obviously going to stand up and wear your jersey proud on the day. We've got to be ready to combat that because we know what's coming."
So do Glasgow. Leinster are chasing a home quarter-final, and with Montpellier coming to Lansdowne Road next weekend, Joe Schmidt will want a clear run going to the last fence. Isa Nacewa is a go-to man in these circumstances. At less than 6ft and bang on 14st he isn't the most physically imposing man on the circuit, but he has a level of aggression in contact that might be described as sensitive: the greater the perceived danger, the harder he hits.
For how much longer the coach can rely on this asset is open to question. You wonder what was the reaction when Nacewa (now 29) came home from work before Christmas to tell his missus their future might not be what they had thought?
"My wife is a very homely girl and she's always been very close to her family and she'd never travelled to Europe before," he says. "She's an Aucklander. There's a sense from her side of excitement at getting back to see the family and raise the kids in New Zealand but, you know, maybe it was a bit premature. Maybe we could have stayed on a bit longer. Maybe we will, but that's all out of my control.
"It's up to the powers that be to do their stuff. I can't focus on that when I go home each night. What happens happens. At the moment we're (looking at) packing our bags and going home."
Well, not just yet. The IRFU model may yet be recalled.
Glasgow v Leinster,
Sky Sports 2, 12.45
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