Sunday 16 June 2019

Isa Nacewa - the Leinster legend who arrived with just two bags and leaves with four kids and four European crowns

Leinster captain Isa Nacewa is applauded off the pitch by teammates following his final home appearance for Leinster, after the Guinness PRO14 semi-final match between Leinster and Munster at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster captain Isa Nacewa is applauded off the pitch by teammates following his final home appearance for Leinster, after the Guinness PRO14 semi-final match between Leinster and Munster at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Daniel Schofield

Even before he kicked the penalty that secured Leinster’s record-equalling fourth European crown, Isa Nacewa’s status as the greatest import in Irish history was assured. The only question now is whether that extends to all of European rugby.

The 35 year-old retires after Saturday’s Pro14 final against Scarlets as one of only six players to have won four Champions Cups. He has also won the Challenge Cup and a pair of Pro14 titles, which he is hoping to make a hat-trick.

Yet his real contribution cannot be measured by trophies alone. Look at his actions after the final whistle in Bilbao where he was the first player to console Teddy Thomas, the Racing 92 wing whose mistake ultimately provided Nacewa with the opportunity to kick the decisive 77th-minute penalty. Then on the podium, co-captains Nacewa and Johnny Sexton invited Jordi Murphy, who is leaving Leinster to join Ulster in the summer, to share in the moment of lifting the trophy.

Asked to define his own legacy, Nacewa does not list his many personal accomplishments, but what he is leaving behind. “When you are involved in the highs for Leinster, it is a pretty good record to be a part of, but I truly believe that you only have a legacy when you leave things that carry on getting better,” Nacewa told The Daily Telegraph.

“That’s how you would measure whether I have a legacy or not. If I leave and the place falls apart then I have done nothing right in my time. If Leinster continue to succeed in the years after I leave then I’d have done OK. In 10 years’ time when I am grey and old, I want to sit down with guys that I have played with and have a beer with them out of genuine respect.”

Given that he is completely devoid of ego, it falls to others to highlight his value to the team. Brian O’Driscoll, who won the club’s first Heineken Cup in 2009 in Nacewa’s first season, lists him as his favourite player to play with for his ability to read the game. “Because he saw the game quicker than everyone else, you felt you were playing the game at a different speed,” O’Driscoll, the BT Sport pundit, said. “Every player looked better with him in the team, I just loved playing with him.”

Even if he has played in every back-line position outside of scrum-half, it would be doing Nacewa a disservice to simply list him as versatile; there is a difference between being able to cover different positions and excelling in them as he does. When Sexton is unavailable, it is Nacewa who takes over the goalkicking responsibilities, as he did in the final.

Then there is his durability. At one point, he started 40 consecutive European games. His pain threshold is remarkable. He is listed as a doubt for Saturday as he was in the semi-final victory against Munster, but he pulled through as he customarily does. “Isa is at a different level to anyone who I’ve come across before,” Leo Cullen, the Leinster head coach, said. “It’s hard to speak highly enough about the guy.”

In another life, Nacewa would have more than 50 caps for New Zealand at this point in his career. Instead, his international experience was limited to two minutes at the end of Fiji’s 2003 World Cup group game against Scotland, accepting the call-up after a begging phonecall from his Fijian father.

“Do I remember it? No. Do I remember the one thing that I did wrong? Yes, because I have said it so many times,” Nacewa said. “I ran on the field in added time, missed a tackle on Gregor Townsend and that was the end of the game.”

That door shut, following a protracted legal case, but another one opened when Michael Cheika asked him to come to Dublin in 2008 where his impact was quickly felt. While it is easy to focus on the big performances in the big games, his worth is even greater in the periods when Leinster are missing their 15-plus contingent of Irish internationals in setting the standards for others to follow.

“It is always a challenge in November and the Six Nations, but it is also an opportunity to grab the jersey and own it for the period of time that you have it,” Nacewa said. “You can’t hold their hand as such, but you can encourage them.”

Technically, this will be the second time that Nacewa has retired. In 2013, he returned to New Zealand to allow his Irish-born children to get to know their grandparents, taking up a role as the Blues' skills coach. Eighteen months later, his agent Niall Woods invited him back to Ireland for some commercial work where he bumped into former teammate Shane Jennings. Text messages were exchanged where he joked about coming back. “There was friendly banter but that turned into a real idea in the space of three weeks,” Nacewa said. After Kevin McLaughlin was forced to retire one game into the 2015/16 season, Nacewa took on the captaincy.

This time, he insists, retirement will be definitive. “It will be 10 years this summer that I landed Ireland,” Nacewa said. “My then girlfriend and I landed with two suitcases and 10 years later we are going back with a container full of the stuff and three kids all born in Ireland.

“There’s no sadness. Not yet. There’s a lot of time to think about things once you retire. Now is not the time for me. It will be a normal week for me. I like routine. I’m a boring player.”

Egoless to the end.

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