There was no more than seven minutes to go at the Estadio Monumental Jose Fierro in Tucaman four summers ago when Ian Madigan danced around two defenders to claim the decisive score for Joe Schmidt’s tourists against
Isa Nacewa had long since disappeared off the Irish rugby radar by then, the Leinster legend having retired and returned home to New Zealand 12 months before, and yet his influence was still bubbling to the surface down in South America.
Madigan revealed after that game how he had spoken to the Kiwi six weeks before, explaining how his old club mate — by then working as a mental skills coach with the Blues — had helped to reinforce his sense of self-belief.
A minor vignette, it hints at the depth of Nacewa’s influence here.
Some reach for Rocky Elsom when the debate as to the best bang-for-buck import to Ireland is revisited. Others make representations for guys like Jim Williams or Doug Howlett, or even Ruan Pienaar, but Nacewa’s case is incontestable.
The first non-Irishman to be named as the player’s player of the year, in 2012, he has played 181 times for Leinster and scored 47 tries. The sheer consistency of his excellence is unparalleled across the last decade.
There may have been a dip in the last year of his first stint, 2012/’13, but he was sensational at full-back in 2008/’09, and again three years later, when Leinster claimed European crowns and he has continued to excel since ending his self-imposed two-year retirement.
Nacewa has been a constant reference point for everything good at the club. A beacon of authority and a bastion of resilience and dependability in chalking up well over a thousand minutes in each of his first seven seasons and double that in two of them.
“Thankfully he is not paid minute by minute,” said Joe Schmidt back in 2011 after a man-of-the-match, try-scoring display against Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, “but he has done a fantastic job for us.” Jamie Heaslip ranks him as the best player he has ever played with and it was Gordon D’Arcy who suggested after that same defeat of the Tigers seven years ago that Nacewa had been so good for so damn long that it had just become boring.
“Probably the biggest compliment I can give him is that in training when he is running, I sometimes get caught looking at him,” D’Arcy said at the time. “He’s just moving and it’s bouncing and he’s just through the gap and you kind of forget to run your support line because you’re looking at him going, ‘that’s brilliant’. Then you realise he’s left you for dead and you should be in the support line.
“He makes it look easy and he makes it look like he has time on the ball. They always say that about great soccer players, that they always look like they have time on the ball. Isa just looks like he has time on the ball all the time. He just creates space, whether it’s just shifting the ball to the left. Someone has a little thing and then he has a go. We’re convinced it has something to do with the hair, the wave.” That hair looks a little thinner these days.
He hasn’t managed even 700 minutes yet this season thanks to calf and ankle injuries, and the realisation on the part of the brains trust that he is just five months shy of his 36th birthday, but the old magic remains.
Brian O’Driscoll suggested this week on Off The Ball that his lengthy stint at inside centre this term suits an aging player who would be more exposed out on the wing, but Nacewa showed against Saracens earlier this month that he retains a spring in his step.
He burst through onto James Lowes’ shoulder after the younger man’s line break three minutes in, sped up the left touchline and fed Garry Ringrose for the opening try. And there was another bolt through the midfield later in the first half.
Rewind five months and he kicked five penalties and a conversion and was the best player on the park against
Exeter Chiefs at the Aviva Stadium despite having played 73 minutes in Sandy Park six days before. And all that just weeks off the back of ankle surgery.
“He’s a remarkable individual,” said Cullen then. “He retired from the game five years ago!”
Nacewa wasn’t a household name when he arrived in Ireland in 2008, but he carried some pretty weighty references. Among them was a testimony from David Nucifora. Now the IRFU’s director of rugby, the Australian was Nacewa’s head coach at the Blues back then.
Nucifora lauded an outstanding, versatile player who brought authority and leadership to his squad. His new boss, Michael Cheika, described an exciting talent with a strong work ethic who would fit into the culture of the province.
He would do that and much more.
Cheika envisaged him at 10 — even with Felipe Contepomi and a promising young Jonathan Sexton on the books — and the Randwick man stuck to that conviction until late January despite some teething difficulties.
More than anything, it was his kicking game that fell short, but there were still undoubted signs of class and that work ethic: Nacewa fractured his arm in just his third game and yet stayed on to make the last tackle of the game.
The pieces eventually fell into place, for him and for Cheika, when Sexton replaced an injured Contepomi at 10 during the epic Croke Park meeting with Munster. Nacewa has already bedded into the No.15 jersey in Rob
“I like being back at full-back,” he said in October of 2009. “It gives me a bit more space and time with the ball.” Ultimately, though, it has never seemed to matter where he played. Every position in the back line has been filled by the veteran New Zealander, including scrum-half where he excelled in one game last season when Luke McGrath was sinbinned.
He even scored a try while holding that fort.
If his impact had been limited to that side of the white lines then his place in the annals of Irish rugby would have already been secured, but it is the influence that he has wielded away from the TV cameras and the full houses that rounds out his story.
With his dreams of representing the All Blacks undone by a one-minute cameo for Fiji and the endless red tape which that unfurled, Nacewa bought into his new venture on the other side of the world from the off.
The eagerness of Leinster’s embrace helped.
The squad was in a meeting preparing for his second season one day when the subject of non-Irish qualified (NIQ) players was brought up and Shane Horgan declared that there was no such thing, that there were only Leinster players.
“That’s coming from Shaggy, Jesus, how else do you not feel accepted? That’s the way it has been ever since,” he explained. “All my girls have been born here so I feel a part of the furniture, that’s for sure.”
That loyalty was evident back in 2009 when speculation
indicated he would line out for Fiji again. He never did, explaining ultimately that he felt a responsibility to step up and lead during those Test windows when the Irish boys were away.
It’s a role he continues to hold now as club captain.
“Yeah, huge impact,” said Dan Leavy of him this week. “Growing up and watching Isa play, he’s been phenomenal in his time in a blue shirt. He mightn’t play every game, but he is almost like a player-coach.
“He drives the standards. He lives the Leinster standards every day and when he’s on the field he plays with real passion and aggression, which is infectious, and it also drives the younger players. Yeah, he’s brilliant.”
Nacewa had a good life back in Auckland after his 2013 retirement. He played squash and golf and he surfed. He did a spot of TV commentary stuff, ended up as mental skills coach with the Blues and he kept fit by working out with the club’s S&C guru Jason Price.
An informal approach to play for the Blues again was met with a firm refusal. The only jersey he would ever even consider wearing again was a Leinster one and the possibility was kept alive via constant chatter with old friends.
There was the odd call with Madigan here, a text or two with Leo Cullen, still captain at the time, there. Matt O’Connor, then Leinster head coach, was another regular point of contact and, eventually, the ‘what if’ wormed its way deep enough into his mind.
“It was just too good of a challenge and an opportunity not to come back.” It was also a monumental gamble, but any fears weren’t long in being stilled, starting with a return off the bench in a pre-season game against Ulster in which there were few signs of rust and two successful penalty kicks. A week later and he scored a try and landed five conversions as Moseley were hammered in Donnybrook and he would end the season with 10 tries. It was his best ever haul — until he went one better last season.
He has always been one to raise the bar.
Nacewa was pivotal in Leinster climbing to the European summit but he ‘got’ the local thing too. “I just want to win when I play Munster. I don’t want to think about anything else,” he said last year when asked if the derby had become a mere trial for the Champions Cup.
He bought into the culture at Leinster and then added to it. He even played an integral part in bringing Schmidt to these shores when he responded to an approach from the then Clermont Auvergne assistant coach by asking if he might fancy in a role over here.
And to think, he’s not quite done yet.