Thursday 17 January 2019

Nacewa, Williams or Howlett? A ranking of the ten best imports in the history of Irish rugby

Isa Nacewa (left), Jim Williams (centre) and Doug Howlett (right).
Isa Nacewa (left), Jim Williams (centre) and Doug Howlett (right).
David Kelly

David Kelly

Slightly less than three years ago, the Irish Independent was offered the chance to interview Isa Nacewa in Auckland, where he had returned as a coach with the Blues following his retirement from Leinster.

The living was easy but the coaching was hard; while with the Blues as a mental skills coach under John Kirwan, the famed franchise would suffer two of their worst seasons in the professional game.

Nacewa seemed happy though, playing a little golf, raising his kids, the boots long tucked away in the attic. "I'm not bitter, I've no regrets, I've moved on, it's called living," he said, reflecting on his five successful years with Leinster.

It was only when we spoke about those Dublin days - the RDS crowd, meeting supporters in the People's Park on a post-match Sunday morning, getting ice creams at Teddy's - and he began to seem wistful, that we decided to push him.

Would he? Could he?

"If ever a role came up with Leinster, my wife and I would be the first to jump on a plane and go right back over there," he suddenly said. "We love everything about Dublin, Leinster and Ireland. We miss the Christmas there. We miss it every day in some little bit. So, if a role came up in the future, we'd jump at it."

Within months, text messages were exchanged between him, Shane Jennings and then Leinster coach Matt O'Connor; within the year, he had announced his decision to resume his playing career in Ireland.

The second coming. They say never go back but neither player nor club has regretted the return for an instant and, if anything, the Fijian has bolstered a reputation that had already been cast in glittering gold.

The final weeks of his career can consummate the re-marriage with a final flourish of winners' medals. Quite apart from his playing career here, Nacewa can also claim to be the author of the most significant footnote in Irish history.

In 2010, his erstwhile assistant coach at Auckland was working in France and suggested to his bosses that Nacewa might just be the player Clermont needed to break their exhaustive title wait.

And so the coach rang the player and suggested he join him in France only for the player to turn the tables and suggest that the coach join the player in Ireland.

The coach's name? Joe Schmidt. Little wonder it is not just Leinster who owe Isakeli Nacewa a most significant debt of gratitude.

Even before he returned, Nacewa would have topped the list of Irish rugby's top ten imports, a list that, as a sporting one, is always subject to perennial debate and amendment.

Ours is subject to subtle limitations; those not qualified to play for Ireland (so no CJ Stander), those who remained for more than a year (apologies to Rocky Elsom) and excluding world-class players who, for whatever reason, didn't cut it here long-term (sorry, Christian Cullen). Some founded a culture, some sustained it, not all were winners.

1 Isa Nacewa

His achievements - three Champions Cups, a Challenge Cup and a PRO12 title - stand him apart, so too his enduring class on the field and his influence off it. Time to coach, perhaps?

2 Jim Williams

Esteem embellished by being chosen ahead of so many locals as Munster captain. Didn't see them conquer Europe but cultural influence carried them some way towards summit as he joined coaching team.

3 Doug Howlett

Munster's last superstar signing and one who lived up to the billing. Spearheaded second European success and now a key behind-the-scenes figuredown south.

4 Ruan Pienaar

Won nothing with Ulster but what separated him from peers was his single-handed, decisive impact on so many huge fixtures for his province. May return in coaching capacity.

5 Michael Swift

A left-field choice but the English lock's 15-year career with Connacht, often through thin and thinner, deserves recognition. Retired before fairytale PRO12 triumph but his fingerprints were on the trophy.

6 Felipe Contepomi

For his influence on Johnny Sexton alone, Dr Phil is worthy of acclaim. Sustained stay transformative and a mesmeric maestro for those of us who dream.

7 Nathan Hines

Longer sojourn than Thorn, Elsom and Fardy in engine room earns him recognition, as did appreciation from the pack he helped win second European title.

8 John Langford

The pioneer of the overseas player in the early, fumbling era of provincial professionalism, another Aussie who subtly bridged the gap for the amateur legends emerging blinking into the new light.

9 Shaun Payne

Although South African was dropped when Munster won their second European title, classy full-back Payne would stay on and assume the role as manager of the club.

10 Stan Wright

Another left-field selection, chosen chiefly because he was one of the most over-achieving imports ever to come and play here. Pilloried five minutes after he arrived, he stayed five years and more than proved his worth.

Irish Independent

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