Nacewa exit signals start of Leinster rebuilding
WHEN Leo Cullen raised the Heineken Cup trophy to the sky for the third time in four years last May, it felt like Leinster's reign would go on indefinitely.
Having finally shaken off the dominance of rivals Munster in 2009, they have been the pre-eminent province since, and their display in beating Ulster at Twickenham was so impressive that it had the continent purring.
Less than a year on, however, there is an end of era feel about the RDS.
The cracks that appeared during the European pool stages when Joe Schmidt's injury-ravaged squad struggled badly have now become fault-lines, and Isa Nacewa's decision to retire at the end of the season despite having another year to run on his contract has added to the sense of the changing of the guard.
It was seen as a considerable coup in October when they convinced their coach to remain on for another year, but instead of looking ahead to more Heineken Cup success and further dominance, Schmidt is facing a major rebuilding job next season.
Nacewa is the sixth player to announce his departure at the end of the season, with Jonathan Sexton and under-rated prop Heinke van der Merwe moving to France, Andrew Conway and Fionn Carr switching provinces and hooker Tom Sexton off to Australia.
Brian O'Driscoll and Cullen have yet to make up their minds on whether they will continue into 2014, while Luke Fitzgerald and Dominic Ryan have still to commit their futures.
Mike McCarthy and Jimmy Gopperth are arriving along with an as-yet-unnamed South African back-three player, with Cheetahs utility back Willie le Roux the most likely candidate.
It means that the province may well start next season with just five of last year's European Cup final starters and both prop replacements gone from their ranks. Add to that the loss of the likes of Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey, Stan Wright and Nathan Hines over the last number of years and there is a tranche of leaders who have left the province.
Like Ireland, they must build from within, and their Pro12 performance in the face of a huge injury list and having to use more than 40 players this season will stand to them.
But their inability to put Exeter and the Scarlets to bed, combined with their struggles to cope with Clermont Auvergne's power, meant that they couldn't get out of their pool in Europe for the first time since 2007-08 and showed signs that the heights they have scaled may be beyond them for a while.
While the likes of Brendan Macken, Jordi Murphy and Dave Kearney have impressed when used, others like Ross, Shane Jennings, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss and Gordon D'Arcy are all over 30 and, though they will provide leadership, will have to be replaced in the coming seasons.
But, despite the impending departures, strength remains in a core of internationals who will be expected to take up the mantle when O'Driscoll, Cullen, Nacewa and Sexton leave.
Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip has been criticised for his international form, but rarely lets Leinster down, while Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney and a fit Fitzgerald would all get into most European sides.
Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney and Eoin O'Malley have bided their time and are ready to step up, and there's a queue of back-row players behind the quartet that featured in last year's final, Kevin McLaughlin, O'Brien, Heaslip and Jennings.
Of them, Rhys Ruddock, Ryan and Murphy have all done well, while all of last year's impressive Ireland U-20 back-row were Leinster players.
Their starting XV remains strong, but depth in certain positions will be a problem.
Speaking before he announced his long-planned decision to retire, Nacewa told 98FM that the up-and-comers are in good shape.
"Back in Auckland when I was coming through their academy, not everyone would have kicked on but since I've been here under Michael Cheika, we have blooded the young lads well and they've taken the opportunity," he said.
"You look at Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock, they have come through and are absolutely flying. They have had great experience at a high level."
Nacewa will expand on his decision at a press conference today, but his coach paid tribute to his four seasons of excellence.
"He has been great value for us, not just on the field where he has provided a string of highlights but off the field also, where he has contributed enormously to the development of the players around him," Schmidt said.
"He's hugely popular amongst supporters and hopefully they will enjoy a few more outstanding performances from Isa in the coming weeks."
Schmidt is expected to follow Nacewa back to New Zealand at the end of next season.
But first, he faces a rebuilding job as the European champions look to get back to the top without some of the main men who got them there.
For the time being, there are two trophies to win and you can be sure that they'll be gunning for two RDS finals to give their departing heroes a send-off.
After four sensational years, it would be the least that Nacewa alone deserves.
Possible Leinster team 2013-14 – Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Eoin O'Malley, Gordon D'Arcy, Dave Kearney; Ian Madigan, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross; Quinn Roux, Mike McCarthy; Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Jack McGrath, Michael Bent, Sean Cronin, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy, Isaac Boss, Jimmy Gopperth, Luke Fitzgerald.