The Fijian free spirit who'd walk onto the Irish team

Bring up the subject of Fijian rugby and the name Leone Nakarawa will not take to long to get an airing.

The 29-year-old forward, who will face Ireland from Fiji’s second row at Aviva Stadium today, is as ubiquitous in any such conversation as he is on the pitch, thanks to the athleticism, power and instinctive approach to the game that underpins a wondrous skill set.

Not for nothing is Nakarawa the king of the offload. His ability to maintain continuity in attack and defences stretched by sucking in tacklers and distributing quick ball on the move is the stuff of legend and has earned him an Olympic gold medal for Fiji on the introduction of Sevens to the summer games in Rio as well as a fat contract in France with Racing 92, for whom he signed from Glasgow Warriors in the summer of 2016.

To watch him in full flow is a delight for rugby supporters of any persuasion and the prospect of seeing him showcase his skills in Dublin this evening is one to relish.

As opposition coaches this weekend, the Irish management may take a different view but Nakarawa’s talents beg the question, how do rugby’s best brains relish the challenge of getting the best out of such a free-spirited player?

Fiji head coach John McKee has no intention of shackling Nakarawa but insists his players do understand the importance of structure.

“One of the things with working with Fiji is you get a lot of satisfaction working with players,” McKee said yesterday. “They’ve got a great vision for the game, great natural talent, but they’ve also got a good open mind to try different things.

“With this group, they understand the balance between structure and playing a freestyle game. They know we need to have structure to build pressure or opportunities, but certainly, there’s no other team in the world that could unleash the unusual play, the off the cuff play. So you don’t want to coach that out of them, you want to keep that, but at the same time the players need to understand we do need a structure to put ourselves in better positions to score.”

The same question also piques the interest of Ronan O’Gara, who outside of Test windows works with the Fijian on a daily basis at Racing 92 yet nevertheless finds it difficult to predict which weapons from the Nakarawa arsenal will be deployed at the Aviva.

“It’s impossible to say what people should look out for Saturday because he doesn’t know himself,” O’Gara said of the player he considers equally comfortable in the second row or at No. 8.

“He’ll get to the ground, he’ll pick up the ball and run and warm up in a completely unorthodox way. Whatever picture presents in front of him he will try to find a solution. It’s fantastic, off the cuff.”

What O’Gara can predict, however, is that whenever he does come into possession, it will be a headache for Ireland.

“He won’t get himself excited when Ireland has the ball, but the minute Fiji get a turnover or possession, you watch him. He will be like a magnet to the ball.”

That is the sort of X-factor Ireland supporters would pine for and, hypothetically O’Gara believes Nakarawa would be an instant hit in green.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, he would be a pick for Joe Schmidt. The great question is would Joe prefer to get that free spirit out of him or work with him and work it into the gameplan?

“From an attacking point of view, without a shadow of a doubt, he is one of the best in the world. No doubt in my mind he would be in Joe’s team.”

So how would the Ireland head coach deal with Nakarawa? Make him stick to the script or let him loose?

“I think he fits the plan,” Schmidt said this week. “The plan is a structure that anyone can, I suppose, bring their own individualism into.

“Some of the things we introduced last weekend — players saw some space and played to it. Players decided to go ‘I’m just going to go here’ and it’s up to other players to get with them.

“The thing with Nakarawa is that he’s so hard to contain.

“If you’re defending and there are 13 attackers and you’ve got 11 defenders, if you stay one for one there’s a couple left over but you can kind of shift a bit and you might get them all.

“The problem with Nakarawa is that we need three there because the ball is still available for the other guys to play with and that makes him a real handful.

“He tends to have that real athleticism. He won a gold medal in the Rio Olympics in the Sevens. To be able to play Sevens you have to have a big engine, a real skill-factor, you’ve got to have a degree of speed. So, for a big man playing in the second row, he’s fast.

“Yeah, look, if he was available you’d have to consider him, wouldn’t you? I’m sure some of our players would love to play with him rather than against him.”



Breaking Stories

Paddy Jackson: Once I got out on the pitch, I felt like I just came out of my shell

Football rumours from the media

Rodgers focusing on Europa League after Champions League proved ‘a step too far’

Coaches take big step forward in FAI’s Festival of Football

Lifestyle

New father’s life ‘changed forever’ after he was run over by surgeon

More From The Irish Examiner