by Isa Nacewa.
The Nacewas are home but I miss the place where all my medals were won.
Honestly, I miss Leo Cullen the most!
The cold side of rugby means the game continues, with or without you, so someone unprepared for this reality is in for a shock. Retirement is a huge deal for the individual but people still involved only glance up, to say goodbye, before moving on.
It has to be this way. I’m okay with that.
My playing days have passed (the calf is finally recovering) but the strategic aspect of figuring opponents out on the field is an irreplaceable feeling.
I’m okay with that too.
What I really miss is the 6.30am arrival into Leinster every morning, walking straight into Leo’s office to chew the fat. He was always there.
People are seeing Leo Cullen mature into a top coach but he was exact the same person three years ago. To me, his perspective on the game, that ability to see the big picture, was evident when he was being hammered in the media after defeats to Toulon in his first season in charge. Leo stayed the course, knowing what talent was coming through, what additional coaching elements the club required and how a unique environment like Leinster is always going to struggle post World Cup. The same Leo could be found behind his desk after those agonising semi-final defeats last year as he was a few days after returning from Bilbao with the European cup.
Same man adapting to situations and planning ahead. Before most people wake, Leo is working away on what’s best for Leinster Rugby but people don’t see that. How could they? Guess I miss that privileged position.
Imagine I was sitting there this season? I’d only be in the way. It was the right time to leave, for my body, for my family and for Leinster to move on.
Another guy always visible in UCD at the crack of dawn is Charlie Higgins. You might not know Charlie, the club’s head of athletic performance, but this odd ball Aussie has been one of the most positive influences in Leinster for the past two years. Charlie arrived in Dublin via the Waratahs, Fiji, Bath and the Western Force, making an immediate impact around the place. We talk about Rocky Elsom, Scott Fardy, James Lowe, the first and second coming of Felipe Contepomi and Stuart Lancaster as crucial outside appointments but Higgins was a game changer.
Maybe it’s because Charlie doesn’t think like anyone else. He’s up at 4am every single day, quietly preparing ways to make us sharper. Again, people don’t see this so I feel privileged to have been amongst it all, especially considering my initial retirement from rugby was in 2013.
The return in 2015 certainly paid off. For a number of reasons.
Support The Sports Chronicle
with a contribution of any size to help us deliver 'direct to fan' human stories from the world of sport, all by the athletes themselves.
Support The Sports Chronicle
The injection of youth into Leinster’s starting XV undoubtedly helped to deliver the European and Pro14 double. What surprised me wasn’t the work ethic or talent of these young guys, rather the amount of them that came through together. Not since I first arrived in 2008 when Fergus McFadden’s gang, which included Dominic Ryan, Eoin O’Malley and Rhys Ruddock, did we have such an influx of ready-made players from the academy. Rory O’Loughlin, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Adam Byrne, Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery forcing their way into European match day squads made Leinster a different proposition.
The Best of TSC
There’s two Heineken Cup games that will always stay with me – one is obvious, the other not at all.
Playing Munster at Croke Park in 2009 was massive on so many levels. It was such a huge step for Leinster to finally beat our great rivals, the defending European champions, when it really mattered.
Guy Easterby sent us the iconic image of the red and blue crowd looking like a giant chessboard. It’s the only framed rugby picture we have hanging in our home.
The other game I can never forget is beating Northampton 37-10 at Franklins Gardens in December 2016 because it proved, to me anyway, that Leinster had regenerated as both a club and a team.
I admit, there were doubts until that night, but that performance proved so important in the evolution of the group. Plenty happened over the 80 minutes, like Dylan Hartley’s red card for clocking Seanie O’Brien – who had been awesome – and there was Rob Kearney’s dummy and break before putting Garry Ringrose under the posts in the second minute.
In between these moments we were really tested. Joey Carbery, who started at 10, was forced off after 15 minutes but Ross Byrne came on and the nobody missed a beat. Then Rory O’Loughlin had to replace Rob early in the second half and he only goes and scores a great try off Ross’ pin point kick pass. When Jamison Gibson Park ran in an exceptional solo effort we went nuts celebrating (I even got in on the party with a late try).
Beforehand I was worried how we would go, worried about what type of team we were becoming, especially without Johnny, but the younger players in particular dispelled any concerns. After that I never doubted them, and never will again.
It gave the entire club a fill of belief. We just clicked. Suddenly, everyone had confidence in the young outhalves. Genuine competition for places was created in positions where we had been reliant on established internationals.
Looking back, that was the moment I knew Leinster would challenge for trophies in the years ahead.
Success comes from knowing what you got. Leo and Stuart’s ability to identify the young players, and promote them, deserves praise. In rugby circles there’s long been an attitude that you need to bide your time, no talking until you’ve 100 caps, kid. Such an approach could have stunted the next generation’s growth. Watching Stuart and Leo develop these guys, blending them into the team, made the difference between winning and losing semi-finals.
Leo promotes personal development over player development. Become a well rounded man and you will become a well rounded professional rugby player.
That’s how I’d like to coach (focusing on people not players).
I definitely want to coach, just not immediately.
When you go down that road the workload automatically doubles, the stress quadruples, while it can be a nomadic existence because you must learn your trade somewhere. Also, job security can be fickle.
I didn’t want to put our daughters through that right now. For me and my wife Simone, life is currently about prioritising Mia, Elle, Lucy and Laura. We live outside Auckland, the equivalent of Enniskerry to Dublin, but what’s different is our wider family can come see the girls. Simone’s sister and mum (grandma) pop down a few times a week. My mum regularly arrives with a home cooked dinner.
Having our families close by is something we missed in Ireland regardless of how much the Leinster clan looked after us.
We wanted to create some stability; the twins are still only eight yet they just entered their fourth primary school.
I’ve just began a nine-to-five job. Absolutely loving it! It’s a financial services company that brings a holistic approach to investment, which my generation and Kiwis in general can relate to. I’m not completely unskilled but the small team of six staff are giving me time to study up while gaining every day experience.
It’s a step away from rugby but I’m still talking away on Sky TV.
The Mitre 10 Cup (New Zealand’s professional third tier) is up and running at the moment. It’s a cool way to reacquaint myself with the country as I’m hitting a different city and stadium almost every weekend.
Drico warned me what to expect! Working at grassroots level – there are barely any Super Rugby players on show anymore – keeps me close to the game but there’s another interesting element. I keep coming across my generation of players as so many of them are in pivotal coaching positions and even higher up the food chain like Shannon Paku is the CEO of Manawatu, Dave Gibson is general manager of North Harbour and Ben Castle is GM of the Hurricanes.
So while I’ve returned to a different rugby landscape there are plenty of familiar faces.
Live commentary forces you to watch rugby from a media perspective rather than constantly strategising. This is a challenge but the viewer can only see what’s on their screen. I’ve learned that talking about what I see off the ball, or anticipating what’s coming a few phases away leaves them stumped. You need to paint the picture with what is on the box. I have to stop giving the play makers view (even though it’s constantly happening in my head).
Doing the recent Manawatu versus Waikato match (Jono Gibbes and Nathan White were next door in the coaching box) I kept trying to figure out how to break down the defensive patterns, and kept presuming I was involved in how the game would pan out.
It’s coaching without the stress.
The media gig keeps me tuned-in but I also recently met The Blues CEO Michael Redman for a coffee. I returned to the franchise around the time he was appointed in 2013 so we struck up a good relationship. I enjoyed going back to the Blues facility, catching up with friends, even after they went through another disappointing year.
Leadership covers so many aspects of a sporting environment, as it does all walks of life, and while the Blues have good structures in place the leadership in certain areas has not been effective. This doesn’t always apply to the CEO, coach or captain – leadership is about every single person taking ownership for their actions, their preparations, their performances.
Hopefully I can jump on board to help this part of the franchise, just contribute in any way I can to help the Blues finally get back to where they belong.
Speaking of leaders, Leinster promoting Johnny Sexton as captain was a natural progression. No one can ever question the fact that Johnny has been the biggest influence in Leinster’s success. Just look at the four European finals.
Some people struggle to understand what leadership is all about. Leo and Stuart preach a clear mantra: everyone should lead in their own way. Me and Johnny had an effective good cop, bad cop routine. Rhys and Johnny will carry that on, I’ve no doubt, but in their own way.
You can’t compare Johnny’s captaincy to mine or anyone else. He’s really grown as a leader in the last two years and it shows in his game.
I was actually signed by Michael Cheika to play outhalf when Johnny was still sitting on the bench behind Felipe Contepomi. I kept telling him I was a 10 or I’d bring up the Wasps game at Twickenham when we got that vital bonus point. “Yeah, you were playing 10,” he’d reply. “I was back in Dublin.”
Johnny never forgets! That’s good too.
Seriously though, a few months into that first northern hemisphere winter it was apparent I was not a pure outhalf.
There’s a nice symmetry to Felipe returning just as Johnny is made club captain. Johnny became the on-field leader the moment Felipe limped off in that momentous 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final in Croke Park.
Contepomi coaching Leinster’s backline just sounds right. He is so passionate, I learned more from him in two seasons as teammates than I did most coaches, just his natural creativity, now transferred into coaching, will prove hugely beneficial for young midfielders.
Ideally, Contepomi will bring a freshness, an innovation to a team that needs to find extra percentages because relying on what won them a double last season won’t be enough.
Watch how he pushes Johnny’s game to new heights. It’s possible!
And he’s a great fella. I also see how Contepomi focused on his medical practice in the initial years after retirement. One day I’ll dive back into coaching but my family doesn’t deserve those stress levels at the moment. I learned this lesson after going straight from Leinster to the Blues as the mental skills coach in 2013.
I’ve a passion for coaching, for guiding players, for the tactics of the game. That will never fade.
Rugby is going nowhere.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.