Leinster captain Isa Nacewa (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images).

Isa Nacewa: almost an All Black, a Leinster legend instead

Isa Nacewa hung up his boots yesterday after leading his beloved Leinster to Champions Cup and Pro14 glory. Scotty Stevenson remembers a remarkable career for a man who deserves to be known for so much more than not playing for the All Blacks.

There was possibly a time when Isa Nacewa regretted playing two minutes of test rugby for Fiji. It was not, by his own critical assessment, much of an international debut for the then 20-year old kid. He came on as a substitute against Scotland at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, attempted one tackle and then heard the fulltime whistle. That was it for the game and, as it turned out, for his hopes of stitching together a stellar international career.

Rugby’s hegemonic eligibility laws meant, after that forgettable 120 seconds of test rugby, Nacewa would never be able to represent another nation. He could have represented at least two: New Zealand, his birthplace and home, where he dazzled crowds for both Auckland and the Blues; and Ireland, his adopted nation where his status as one of the greats was reinforced this season.

The law, in the case of Isa Nacewa, is an ass.

It is we, as much as he, who were robbed by the IRB’s intractable stance. Who among us would have not thrilled at the sight of one of the most creative players ever put on God’s green grass lighting up the big stages of the game? And he would have. Because lighting it up is what Nacewa has always done.

He did it in New Zealand. In 2007, his final season with Auckland, he helped the side claim the national championship (the union has not claimed the crown since) and the Ranfurly Shield (the union’s last reign). Legend has it that after the team had returned from Christchurch with the Log O’ Wood, Nacewa and Brent Ward chained themselves to the celebratory keg in the Eden Park changing room and did their best to drain if of every last drop.

It was titles, not test caps, that Nacewa learned to celebrate. Robbed of the latter, he set his formidable mind to collecting the former. He left New Zealand, knowing that the All Blacks door was closed, and arrived in Dublin with “two suitcases”. He’d need many more, just to fit in his many accolades, if he were to return to New Zealand now.  He has been a part of four European victories for Leinster and he collected his third league title on the weekend. He is the undisputed king of cups.

It says much about Nacewa that his team forced him to hold the Pro14 trophy aloft on his own at the presentation. It says much more that he didn’t want to. In his post-match press conference he called time on his career but did not dwell on the past. Instead, he laid down a challenge to the future stars of Leinster. He does not look back. Isa Nacewa only goes forwards.

BILBAO, SPAIN – MAY 12: Isa Nacewa, and Jonathan Sexton celebrate their European Rugby Champions Cup Final victory. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

He came back to New Zealand several years ago. He wanted his kids to experience a life here. He lived in Onehunga, looking out across the Manukau Harbour and the shabby old fishing wharf where the cement ships would dock and the salt ice factory whirred all day. He called a few games for television. I had the privilege of working alongside him. Articulate, accurate, anticipatory – all the things he was as a player and as a person he brought to his game coverage.

Engaging and warm he has always been. He was a joy to speak to about much more than the game. He was a soul searcher of sorts, a man who sought every avenue for self-improvement. He joined the Blues’ coaching staff but saw before most of us that the team for which he had first made his name needed something he simply could not offer. He was too much of a gentleman to ever criticise the organisation but I knew he fulfilled his obligations there in quiet despair.

And then he was gone again.

The seeker found familiar ground upon which he knew he could add value. He returned to Leinster in 2014 and now, three seasons later, he leaves the playing roster once more. He has enriched the club, and all who have played alongside him, but his body is done. His brain, on the other hand will keep giving for many years to come.

That’s probably what made Nacewa special as a player. He is a giver – a generous man off the field who on it made his team mates better. A pass here, a swerve there, a running line divined by magic. He set up every story, and let the others deliver the punch lines.

But not on the weekend. There was only one way for a legend to go, and that was to stand there, in front, with the trophy raised and the briefest of moments his alone to savour. And when you watch that moment again, and you should, you will know that those two minutes for Fiji cost Isa Nacewa nothing at all, that there will be no regrets.

He retires a legend, a titan of the game. And the plaudits and the titles are his to cherish and to one day, when the next door opens and he takes his first steps on the journey of the rest of his life, reflect upon.

And everything about that is just as it should be.


This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia.


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