'We had a coffee, a scone, a chat and I agreed to join Leinster that day' - Isa Nacewa 4 months ago

'We had a coffee, a scone, a chat and I agreed to join Leinster that day' - Isa Nacewa

"U2's famous One Tree Hill song. I'm from there."

To an Irish person, Isa Nacewa knows what button to press when explaining where he was born and raised. An Onehunga boy, Nacewa was never far from the scenic One Tree Hill [a volcanic peak] in Auckland.

His parents arrived in the Auckland suburb in 1977 and Isa arrived five years later. He attended Auckland Grammar School, launch-pad for the rugby careers of All Blacks such as Grant Fox, Doug Howlett and the Ioane brothers Rieko and Akira, and fulfilled a life-long dream, in 2002, of being invited to train with Auckland's senior squad.

Speaking to SportsJOE from his home 'out in the wops' but no more than a 15-minute drive into Auckland's city centre, Nacewa looks back on his journey from a young kid with dreams of playing for New Zealand to the path he eventually took that saw him become a one-cap wonder with Fiji and a Leinster legend.

"Ben Atiga and Benson Stanley would have been the two [future] All Blacks that would have been at Auckland Grammar with me," he says. "And you had Doug Howlett, who was my mentor for a few years and still is, I guess. He was four years ahead of me. Rieko and Akira were the next cabs off the rank - in terms of being superstars - but there is a huge rugby tradition at the school, to be sure."

Isa Nacewa trains with teammates during an Auckland training session at Unitec, in October 2007. (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

As much as he loved playing rugby, Nacewa's main driver when he finished up at school was heading to university and hopefully getting out of New Zealand for what the Kiwis call 'The big O.E' [Overseas Experience].

"I was a bit of a late bloomer... I wasn't a school-boy star and I got pulled in quite late," he recalls.


"It wasn't until I was 21, or 22 even, until I got pulled back into the Auckland academy. Most guys go straight in from school, whereas I skipped the boat a bit and went and did a few years at uni. And it wasn't until I was 23, really, before I started making my way, consistently, into the Auckland and the Blues [Super Rugby] teams."

Nacewa was excellent for Auckland, in 2005, when they won the National Provincial Championship [now Mitre 10]. Listed as Isikeli Nacewa, 'Isa' was also included in the Auckland Blues squad for that season's Super Rugby championship.

The Blues had won their fourth Super Rugby crown in 2003 [making it three titles in seven years] and Nacewa went into a squad stacked with world-beating talent. In his four seasons with the franchise, though, it never clicked.

"It still annoys the hell out of me, to be honest. I still hate the Crusaders and probably every other team in New Zealand, just like I hate Munster! Oh, it was always a case of us under-performing a little bit and we never cracked it. Made semi-finals, quarter-finals and the like but never really kicked on.

"When I look back, I see the names we had. I played with some legends of the game - Carlos Spencer, Doug Howlett, Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokococo, the list just goes on and on. It was a bit of a star-studded squad... we had the team to crack that Super Rugby title, we just never did it."

Also in that Blues squad, when Nacewa first broke through, were Ali Williams, John Afoa, Nick Williams, Xavier Rush, Keven Mealamu, Troy Flavell Luke McAlister and Rua Tipoki.

Isa Nacewa (C), Daniel Braid (L) and Derren Witcombe (R) of the Blues celebrate the final whistle after they beat Queensland Reds. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

By the time 2007 rolled around, though, Nacewa was facing a nervous wait to see if he would even make the Blues squad. Looking to provide a clear pathway for home-grown talents to play at the top level, New Zealand's rugby union deemed that squads would only be permitted one 'foreign' player.


As Nacewa had played for Fiji, who he qualified with through his parents, at the 2003 World Cup, he was in danger of missing out. "Aside from the international implications," he says, "I wouldn't have known too much, at the time, how much it could impact Super Rugby selection.

"I definitely have [then coach] David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt for the work they did to try keep me with the Blues, at the time. I didn't know about it at the time, when the drafts for Super Rugby teams were done, but if I was blocking an All Black, or a potential All Black, then I could just be written off. Joe and David went to big lengths to keep me.. I always had a loyalty for guys that would go out on a limb for me."

That mention of Schmidt is the first in our wide-ranging conversation but it is not our last. Schmidt was assistant coach at the Blues from 2004 to 2007. He helped them reach the Super Rugby semis in his final year before heading to Clermont to become assistant to Vern Cotter.

Nacewa would finally get that O.E in 2008 when he followed Schmidt, to Europe at least. His destination was Ireland, though, not France.

Leinster coach Michael Cheika (R) celebrates with Denis Hickie after their Heineken Cup quarter final win over Toulouse in 2006. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

By 2008, that travel itch was back. Nacewa was turning 26 and was into his fourth season with the Blues when he asked his agent to put out the feelers. An above-and-beyond recruiting drive meant the versatile back would be heading to Leinster.

"My agent said, 'Michael Cheika is willing to fly down to have a chat. Would you be willing to meet?'

"I was like, 'Hell yes, if someone is going to fly all that way'. I didn't know a huge amount about Leinster, at the time. I knew of the players that played for Leinster. It was [initially] just a phone call with Michael and he asked if I wanted to meet up for a coffee. So we sat down in a café in Mount Eden and literally just chewed the fat. We had a conversation, a coffee, a scone and that was it.

"I knew the vision that he wanted to take Leinster on. Knew what he wanted to do, knew the players and that was it. We shook hands there in that café before I even signed up. I owe a hell of a lot to Cheiks for doing that."


The Australian went from his coffee with Nacewa all the way down to Hamilton to meet up with prop CJ van der Linde, who was there with Cheetahs to take on the Chiefs. He headed back to Leinster with two quality signings that would play big roles in the seasons, and successes to come.

In August, Isa Nacewa and Ronan O'Gara teamed up with Guinness to reveal limited edition Guinness x BuJo Rugby at Home Kits, perfect for the ultimate rugby at home celebration. (©INPHO/Isa Nacewa)

Nacewa and van der Linde came into a Leinster squad that - bolstered by the return of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings from Leicester - had won the Celtic League. Whatever plan Cheika sold to Nacewa in Mount Eden, it started to take shape quicker than both men would have hoped.

"In the first 12 months, I won the European Cup in the first season I was there. I was thinking, 'This is easy. This is going to happen every year.'

"Then I found out, and learned the history, trouble and the stepping stones it took, along the way, to get there. Winning that first Heineken Cup, and the expressions and emotions on the guys' faces, that was when you really started to realise, 'Hey this is what the culture reflects and this is where they want to go'.

"It was a learning curve but, after that first year, there wasn't anywhere else I was going to go. My wife loved it and my girls were born in Ireland. So it was a case of stay put and carry on."

Carry on he did.

From 2008 to 2018, Nacewa won two league titles, four European Cups and a Challenge Cup with Leinster. He lined out for the Blues 186 times and scored 706 points for them, the final three of which secured them that fourth star over the Leinster crest as they defeated Racing 92 in Bilbao.

He retired at the end of the 2013 and returned to New Zealand with his young family and with a surfboard the Leinster squad had got him, and all signed, as a going away present.

He returned in 2015, after a spell of coaching and punditry, to put his body through another three seasons for the Leinster cause.

From his base, out in the wops, he is involved in a thriving property business but admits rugby, and Leinster, may yet lure him back. On Saturday morning [NZ time], the Nacewas will be tuning in to see if Leinster can add another trophy to their growing legacy.

"My girls still pull out their Leinster jerseys whenever there's a Leinster match, or any match, really. Johnny Sexton is still their favourite player."