Utility man Nacewa brings the all-round game to Leinster

ISA NACEWA seems well settled in Ireland. A native of Auckland, or the “big smoke” as he calls it, it was easy to adapt to city life in Dublin and he’s expecting the arrival of new twins on New Year’s Eve.

Just as well, really, because settling down on the pitch has been a mite more complicated at Leinster, where he has popped up everywhere along the back line apart from scrum-half.

It wasn’t just Nacewa’s talent that sold him to Michael Cheika; it was that versatility, but neither could have foreseen just how flexible the former Auckland Blues man would need to be.

It isn’t just the variety of positions he has been asked to fill, it is the frequency with which he has had to up sticks and bed down in another position. Call it the curse of John O’Shea, if you like.

His first game for Leinster last season was at full-back but he was playing 10 when he broke his arm against the Ospreys a few weeks later, and that was where Cheika envisaged him shining when he returned towards the end of the year.

His stint at out-half didn’t go well. Nacewa struggled to marshal his playmaking skills, Leinster failed to make line breaks and score tries, and Felipe Contepomi was back in the box seat by the time of the Harlequins’ Heineken Cup quarter-final.

Shuffled over to the wing, he finished the season at full-back thanks to Rob Kearney’s illness but it remains anyone’s guess as to where Nacewa will play the bulk of his rugby this time around.

He may still be called upon to deputise for Johnny Sexton at 10 given the paucity of cover there, and the fight for places in the back three is frightening with Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Horgan and Girvan Dempsey all sticking their hands in the air as well.

“I like being back at full-back,” he admits. “It gives me a bit more space and time with the ball, but you have to give credit to the guys around you.

“Shane Horgan has led from the front this year. Dave Kearney’s come along as well and we’ve worked well as a back three when we’ve been playing together.”

In fairness, he’s used to competition. While with Auckland he was knocking around a squad that boasted boys like Doug Howlett, Luke McAlister and Joe Rokocoko but he feels the battle for positions is, if anything, much more intense at Leinster.

“It’s on a much greater scale here. At Leinster you have three top-class Lions backs coming back into the squad, four with Gordon (D’Arcy). The whole level stepped up a ton when they came back.

“With the likes of the guys who’ve been around here for a long time too it’s healthy competition, and it does bring out the best in you at training and it sort of keeps the pressure on you as well.”

He starts in his favourite position of full-back today and will no doubt find himself having to deal with deliveries from the boot of Ronan O’Gara, whom he regards as the best tactical kicker he has faced on either side of the equator.

That was a conclusion he came to exactly 12 months ago when Munster departed the RDS with an 18-0 win courtesy of O’Gara’s assured generalship, which kept the ball in front of his pack for much of the 80 minutes.

Munster secured a Magners League double against their neighbours later that season, but Tony McGahan’s side would have traded both those results for the win in last April’s Heineken Cup semi-final.

“The results have gone through a tit-for-tat period over the last 10 games. We’ve sort of got up on them and then they’ve come back and taken it. They’ll be thinking about how they came up here last year and got one up on us and they’ll be bringing confidence as well so we’ve got to knuckle down and do the job.”

Derby matches being what they are, there will be familiar faces on the opposing sides in Ballsbridge this evening, and Nacewa will be no different, with Howlett and Nick Williams facing him in the far trench.

Williams is another to have shared a dressing room with Nacewa in Auckland and the Leinster man has been kidding his old pal this week about how he has abandoned his city roots for the quiet life in the country.

“He’s one of the strongest players I’ve played with.

“His work off the back of the scrum and his strength is one of his biggest traits and he loves running with the ball. A lot of people think he can’t really go the distance but I’ve seen him go 80 minutes a lot of the time so he has the fitness to do it.”

Jean de Villiers is no stranger either: the two crossed paths in the Super 14 and the last time Nacewa saw the South African up close was in a tie between the Blues and Stormers in the Cape in April 2007, when the Springbok intercepted a pass and ran 90 metres to score a try in a 33-20 win.

“He’s one of the best backs I’ve come up against. You’ve always got be on your game against him. He can read play really well – look at the amount of intercepts he’s got – so he’s a great defender and a great attacker and he’s going to be a huge asset for them.”

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