Sunday 24 March 2019

Isa was centre stage in the Blues' road to Europe's summit

Remarkable Nacewa and Strauss to retire at the end of the season

Leinster’s Isa Nacewa and Richardt Strauss who will depart the club at the end of this season
Leinster’s Isa Nacewa and Richardt Strauss who will depart the club at the end of this season

"Hey, there's yer man," said a friend with a sharp elbow to the ribs.

"What man?"

"Yer man who plays for Munster, Doug Howlett."


"Over there at the bar with the big puffed up jacket."

"That's not Howlett."

"What? Are you sure?"


"Who is it?"

"Isa Nacewa."


"Isa Nacewa, Leinster's new foreign player."

"Is he any good?"

"I guess we'll see."

IT was one of those beautiful chilly, winter afternoons in Mulligan's Pub on Poolbeg Street on November 15, 2008.

Ireland were about to lose to New Zealand once again and Nacewa was easing his way into life in Dublin, just three games into 182 caps and 700 points - and still counting - for Leinster.

Back then, you couldn't really blame someone with a passing interest in the game from mistaking Nacewa for Howlett.

It must have been the hair, those jet black, tightly screwed curls which have gently receded as the game and time have taken their toll.

He just can't do this anymore.


Isa Nacewa will hang up his blue shirt for the second and last time at the end of this season.

When the story came this hack's way a while back, the normal rules did not apply.

There was pause for thought and time enough for an inquiry to be made through official channels for an interview to disclose Nacewa's intentions.

It was met with 'a gentleman's request' - not a demand - that the old soldier be left to play out his days in relative anonymity, except for the odd slashing break on the edges and one of those rib-rattling thumps in the centre, on the wing or anywhere else the coaches please.

Typical of the man, the 35- year-old did not want the story to come out before his last game, in case it was a distraction to Leinster.

Afterall, he has been here before.

The sense of déjà vu must still linger from 2013 when Nacewa's retirement from the game was made public in March of what was supposed to be his last season.

In his five years, he had won over an adoring public to become 'a cult hero,' the simple chant of 'Iiiiissaaa' regularly ringing out around The RDS.

The garlands of three Heineken Cup, one Challenge Cup and one League medals hung around his neck.

Initially, he was Leinster's 'Mr Fixit,' playing anywhere his coach Michael Cheika wanted in the first two years.

When the time came for the Australian to move on, it was Nacewa's knowledge of a coach from his old life in New Zealand that brought Joe Schmidt to Leinster in 2010 and, ultimately, to Ireland in 2013.

Earlier that year, Nacewa, denied All Black status by a one-cap cameo for Fiji in 2003, had gathered up his medals, his wife Simone and Irish-born girls, the twins Mia and Ellie and Lucy to return home.


His work was done. Or so he thought.

When Schmidt embarked on the road to international rugby, Matt O'Connor was employed to maintain standards at Leinster as a trophy destination.

Despite the PRO12 League title, the relationship between O'Connor and Leinster went sour and was dissolved.

Forwards coach Leo Cullen was ushered in as the new head with just one year as an assistant banked.

When Leinster limped through the first season, Cullen was shrewd enough to know he needed experience on the field and off it.

This is what led to the contact with Stuart Lancaster and, even before that, to his old team-mate Nacewa.

They say you should never go back.

Nacewa was on a hiding to nothing when answering Cullen's call.

He had kept the promise he made on leaving Leinster in 2013 to play for no other club.

However, this meant two years without rugby and led to accusations of Leinster looking back, not forward in a time of need.

Leinster's club captain has done more than any player, Irish or overseas, to put the province where it has been since 2009.

"He's the common denominator on all success," said Brian O'Driscoll. "You get to a point where there is a disconnect between you and the 20-21 year-olds.

"It's not as easy when you're the oldest guy and, on the pitch, you're looking down and you're going, 'I'm actually getting to the point where I could be your father. I think I need to exit stage left.'"

Nacewa is more Leinster than anyone because he has done more than any other player to turn it into a European superpower.


JAMIE HEASLIP: 12 British & Irish Lions caps, 95 Ireland caps, 229 Leinster caps.

CATHAL MARSH: 26 Leinster caps.

JORDI MURPHY: 20 Ireland caps, 104 Leinster caps.

ISA NACEWA: 1 Fiji cap, 182 Leinster caps.

RICHARDT STRAUSS: 17 Ireland caps, 154 Leinster caps.

PEADAR TIMMINS: 12 Leinster caps.

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