Saturday 20 October 2018

David Kelly: Leinster hero Isa Nacewa has found a home in exile

Coincidence has paved the path to new destiny for true Leinster legend

Isa Nacewa twice turned down approaches from Clermont to stay loyal to Leinster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa twice turned down approaches from Clermont to stay loyal to Leinster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Chance can determine a life's path but only choice decides how far one travels it. The road rises ahead but, still, you must walk to meet it.

When Isa Nacewa was just five, he seemed no different to the hundreds of other kids in Auckland who flocked to their local sports grounds with heads brimful of dreams and hands brimming with dexterity and feet bereft of shoes for the ball was never meant to be kicked.

All followed in the footsteps of their rugby-playing fathers because this was the way of life for those who were raised here. Isakeli shared in the imagination of all those boys and the pinnacle was to become an All Black; the ultimate rite of passage.

When he was five, he went with his family to the opening match of the inaugural World Cup in 1987 at Eden Park.

Nacewa's idol was John Kirwan. Beforehand, the All Blacks walked around kicking rugby balls into the crowd. When 'JK' launched his, Isa was ready.

If rugby is religion for Kiwis, this was where they chose to worship their sporting gods.

And when Nacewa clutched the ball that had just left Kirwan's boot, the rain-soaked Eden Park might just as well have been Mount Sinai.

Contemplate

Destiny was calling him to the only existence he could ever consider. But fate would map out a life that would have seemed impossible to contemplate.

That same year, Fiji had just managed to take up their place in the tournament after the second of two coups just months apart.

Fiji was the land of his father who had, like so many of compatriots, moved to New Zealand as a teenager to pursue a better existence.

He found a new life there and a wife, too, whom he met in university. Soon, they would raise a family. Miles from home, they established a new one.

Isa would grow up surrounded by rugby, if not always immersed in it. He played in Auckland College but by the time he went to university, a career in teaching seemed a more likely prospect until he started starring for the Auckland NPC side as a 19-year-old.

Two years later, it is 2003 and Auckland are playing at Wellington in the competition final; his side win and celebrations are wild.

So raucous that when Nacewa is approached the same weekend by Fiji to play in the World Cup as a late call-up, the emotional adrenaline fuels him to accept the invitation; they insist his chances of playing for the All Blacks will not be affected.

"I was a very late developer," he told me in 2015. "I didn't make New Zealand schools teams, and the All Blacks wasn't even a consideration for me in 2003. I'd just made the Auckland NPC team, I wasn't playing Super Rugby, I was still at uni.

"I played maybe seven games for Auckland that year. One of those was the NPC final, and I got a phone call that night, saying, 'Do you want to go to the World Cup next week?', after a player got injured. And I said, 'Yeah, great, I get to go to a World Cup'."

And so a week later in Sydney, he makes his international debut - "Two minutes and 28 seconds!" - as a late sub against Scotland.

He never once touched the ball in his first international. He didn't realise it then but it would also be his last.

For the moment, at least, nothing much changed. Nacewa emerged as one of the most talented amongst a clutch of future World Cup winners.

All he wanted was to play for the All Blacks. Except his long-cherished destiny had been undermined by his hasty decision in 2003.

He spent two years trying to retrieve those two-and-a-half fateful minutes. Ultimately, he failed.

And so, with his progress in New Zealand barred, and his own presence blocking those who wanted to pursue their own international ambitions, he suddenly faced the same dilemma that had confronted his father so many years before.

He would have to leave his home and seek another. He would find it in Dublin with Leinster who had made the best offer.

History has defined his legacy here but not all the portents were so ominous when he first pitched up with the Michael Cheika squad seeking to break the glass ceiling of European competition.

For one thing, he had nowhere near the kicking game required of a putative out-half who would ostensibly cover for Felipe Contepomi (even a decade ago, Johnny Sexton was labelled as an AIL player to be broken in case of emergency).

A broken arm in just his third match enhanced the perception that, of the marquee signings in 2008 - CJ van der Linde and Rocky Elsom completed the trio - the quietly-spoken, mild-mannered one with the flowing locks would be the first out the gate.

However, he would end the year as the starting full-back in the side that ascended to the European throne.

Province and player had achieved lift-off.

Like his father before him, Nacewa would settle down and raise a family (twins Mia and Ellie, and Lucy) with Simone in a different land.

There were fleeting home thoughts from abroad but had he not filled the hole with something far more fulfilling and rewarding?

"I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't played that Fiji game," according to Nacewa. "I probably wouldn't be here now! They tightened the rules, you couldn't switch after you had played for one country.

"But I don't get caught up in the regrets."

Indeed, if there was any lingering sense of ruefulness of what had passed him by, it was the realisation that, given rugby's ever-changing attitude to international eligibility, he might well have donned a green jersey.

"If I hadn't played for Fiji, I would have qualified for Ireland after three years living here, in 2011. And that was probably a harder thing for me to miss out on - it maybe would have been more realistic."

He remained loyal to Leinster - famously, he twice declined Clermont's interest and, instead, the quarry persuaded the pursuer, a certain Joe Schmidt, to come to Ireland instead.

Circumstances had trumped coincidence.

Even when he "retired" for two years, returning to start the kids in school and doing some coaching with Auckland, Ireland still tugged.

Because Dublin was now his home from home.

And, even if he completes a remarkable career with more silverware, it may stay so as Leinster and he decide upon the possibility of a coaching role.

Home for Isa Nacewa is where the heart is.

Irish Independent

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