Heineken Cup Heroes: Isa Nacewa
Trawl through the list of imports to play rugby on these shores over the years and you’ll do well to find a better one than Leinster’s man for all seasons, Isa Nacewa.
When Leinster finally reached the summit of European rugby in 2009, like Munster’s breakthrough three years earlier, it was seen as just reward for all the sweat and blood the Blues had spilled in the competition before they reached the promised land.
Leinster might not have lost two finals before winning one like Munster, but they were an almost constant feature in the knockout stages from the turn of the millennium and had been knocked out at the quarter-final stage three times and the semi-final twice before beating Leicester in 2009.
Not all of the Leinster squad had put in the hours before tasting success, however. Isa Nacewa arrived in Dublin from Auckland Blues at the beginning of that season and in the time since, has collected three Heineken Cup winners’ medals in four years, losing in the semi-final to eventual winners Toulouse in 2010 in the year in between.
Believed to be incredibly laid-back by nature, Nacewa could be forgiven for thinking that this European rugby lark is a breeze, but is no mere coincidence that the most successful period in Leinster’s history came shortly after the arrival of the one-time Fiji international on these shores.
In the run-up to that final in ’09, Nacewa managed to keep no less of a man than Rob Kearney out of the team – at the time Kearney was on the back of a Grand Slam with Ireland and would soon be one of the standout players on the Lions Tour that summer – but any misgivings about his replacement soon went away following a brilliant display at 15 against Munster in the semi-final and an equally assured performance against Leicester in the final in Murrayfield.
While Nacewa hinted at what he could bring to the party in 2009, in the years since he has consistently proven himself as one of the standout backs in the European game and has probably been Leinster’s most impressive performer in that timeframe.
That’s saying something given the quality of player at the province and the success they’ve tasted in the time since, but Nacewa has proved himself at full-back, on the wing and at out-half when required and is a very accomplished goal-kicker whenever Jonathan Sexton isn’t on the pitch.
Nacewa scored two tries in eight games in Leinster’s run to the semi-final in 2010, but it was in the 2011 season that he really came into his own. As well as winning the IRUPA and Leinster Rugby Player of the Year awards en route to Leinster’s second Heineken Cup triumph, Nacewa scored three tries in the campaign, including a beauty against Leicester in the quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium.
Last season brought more Heineken Cup success for Nacewa and Leinster and though a fourth Heineken in five years looks unlikely at present, the 30-year old will no doubt have a huge part to play if Joe Schmidt’s side can upset the odds.
Had it not been for a solitary appearance with Fiji at the 2003 World Cup, Nacewa could have amassed a number of caps for the All-Blacks by now and he certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place either.
Every cloud has a silver lining though and had Nacewa been able to play for the All-Blacks he might not have ended up here, something that could have had a drastic effect on Leinster’s success in the last few years.
Universally admired by supporters, peers and pundits, Leinster fans will miss Nacewa when he’s gone, but having penned a contract extension until the summer of 2014, thankfully that’s not going to happen for some time yet.