Nacewa the best of them all
One can only assume that Joe Schmidt and Leinster have known for some time, but the news that Isa Nacewa is to return to New Zealand a year before his current contract ends has caught most by surprise.
Given the furore over the IRFU's Non-Irish Eligible (NIE) scheme, which landed in December 2012, it's particularly ironic that Nacewa was the overseas player most widely cited as the model import Irish rugby could ill afford to be without.
While the overall intention of the NIE was good – aimed at essentially limiting overseas signings to one specialist per position spread through all four provinces – the 'problem' with Nacewa was he could, with relative comfort, fill every numbered shirt behind the scrum, bar nine. He was the exception, perhaps, but what an exception.
Views are invariably mixed on the contribution of foreign players and for every successful signing there has been a bum import too. It is a risky business.
The successes (with apologies to any I've left out) include Jim Williams, John Langford, Rocky Elsom (albeit for just one season), Doug Howlett, Mikey Mullins, Mike McCarthy, Kurt McQuilkin, Felipe Contepomi, Paul Warwick, Ruan Pienaar, Trevor Halstead, and, although here for even less time than Elsom, Brad Thorn who in his short stay at Leinster left an indelible mark.
I was tempted to include Andy Ward, too. Like McCarthy, Mullins and McQuilkin he has been capped by his adopted country, but is a fully- fledged Irishman in all but birth. All mentioned have contributed in no small way to both the establishment and development of professional rugby in this country.
If pushed to pick the standout signings who have not hit the test heights, I would have to nominate Langford (4 caps for the Wallabies) and Nacewa (one bit appearance for Fiji). The reason I would pick Nacewa ahead of the highly decorated Howlett is because of that extra ingredient called versatility.
Mix it all together in terms of longevity, influence, ability, popularity, consistency, attitude, professionalism, selflessness, adaptability, bravery to a fault and in Nacewa you've got the most complete foreign import since rugby went professional in this country. The Auckland-born 'Dub' of Fijian descent has been that good.
Others on that elite list may have contributed more in individual ways, but for the complete package, Nacewa has been the real deal. While there is disappointment among Leinster fans at his imminent departure, I expect he will receive huge support when he runs out against Glasgow this evening at the RDS and in the remaining weeks of the season.
There is another element and it's the 'X-factor' he brings to his game. When he arrived under Michael Cheika in 2008, he came primarily as an out-half having edged Luke McAlister into the centre for Auckland, and the Auckland Blues in the Air New Zealand Cup and Super 14 rugby the season before.
Apparently, he did well in the pivotal role, guiding Auckland to domestic success, but what I saw when he arrived wearing No 10, was a player over-hyped in the position, given his inability to control a game by way of the boot.
A stop-gap in a crisis, perhaps, but never a game manager. His kicking out-of-hand varied from the sublime to the ridiculous – the man himself would concede on that count.
But move him further out the line – specifically to the back three – and here, like Contepomi, was a true rugby genius at work, and I can tell you that I don't make that assertion lightly.
What Nacewa possesses above every other asset is that unquantifiable ability to make something out of nothing. You can call it the 'X-factor,' but, whatever it is, the consummate utility back possesses it in spades. He always seems to have the time to create space, counter-attacking or scoring opportunities for others whether by way of a deft off-load, side step/swerve or chip and gather.
He is at his most effective in the back three, but probably most lethal of all when wearing the full-back shirt where the opportunities to impose in attack are plentiful.
Unfortunately for him, and in a sense for Leinster, opportunities have been limited with Rob Kearney the main full-back, but when Nacewa plays there, he is at his attacking best.
When both of the most capped centre pairing in world rugby, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy describe Nacewa as "one of the best they've ever played with," I think it makes further elaboration unnecessary. But what a shame that one bitty replacement cap for Fiji against Scotland has cost him the opportunity to display his attacking wares at the highest level.
Voted the Leinster Player of the Year in 2011 and, so far, the only overseas recruit to warrant the IRUPA (Player's player) award the same year, he has proved to be a model professional – the mentor for young and developing players in training, but more than anything the leader behind the scrum when the international elite are away with Ireland. It is going to prove a mighty void to fill.
Added to the departure of Jonny Sexton, Fionn Carr and Andrew Conway to pastures new, there are some huge holes to be filled at Leinster.
The Sexton and Carr transfers and the reasons behind them have been well documented. I believe Carr has much to offer at representative level, but it is the move of Conway to Munster that has, in many ways, slipped under the radar.
Leinster's loss is Munster's gain though, as Conway has the raw ingredients to go the whole way.
What Munster failed to get from Christian Cullen (due to injury), they may now get from Conway if he is developed in the full-back position where he is most at ease.
Rob Penny and Simon Mannix may not yet know it, but they've got a really good 'un on their hands.
Conway's move is good for the player and good for Irish rugby.
In the meantime, along with D'Arcy and O'Driscoll – let us enjoy Nacewa while he is still in our midst. Great can be a term over used and much abused, but if ever that description applied to anyone it is to Isakeli Nacewa, Leinster legend.