Leone Nakarawa aiming to derail Glasgow’s European dream

Leone Nakarawa in action for Racing 92 against Stade Francais in the French Top 14. Picture: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
Leone Nakarawa in action for Racing 92 against Stade Francais in the French Top 14. Picture: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
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It is the nature of the business but Glasgow have lost a heap of talent over the years: Richie Gray to France, Al 
Kellock to old age, DTH van der Merwe and John Barclay to the Scarlets, Moray Low and Niko Matawalu to the Chiefs, Duncan Weir to their inter city rivals. But if Gregor Townsend had the opportunity to recall just one of the many alumni there is little doubt that he would put out the welcome mat for a long-limbed Fijian lock who became a firm favourite of all at Scotstoun, coaches, players and fans alike.

When Racing 92 made a bid for Leone Nakarawa last summer he had one year left on his Glasgow contract and one club insider confirmed that the big lock was keen to see out his contractual obligation, such is the measure of the man, despite the huge hike in wages coming his way across the channel.

The coaches and management decided that it would prove too much of a distraction. Nakarawa left Glasgow and Glasgow may yet rue letting him go if “Naksi” comes back to haunt them this afternoon when Racing host the Warriors in Paris. Whatever the result this afternoon, the big Fijian has fond memories of his former club and is looking forward to catching up with No 8 Ryan Wilson, pictured below, whom he still considers more as a brother than a best friend.

“Glasgow is like my second home and I will never forget Glasgow in my heart,” Nakarawa said last week from Paris. “It was my first professional club and when I first came to Glasgow the people just made me feel welcome and at home. Every time I look at Glasgow I think Glasgow is my second home from Fiji. In my three years at Glasgow I made a lot of friends and the boys together are like my brothers and Ryan Wilson is more than a best friend, he is like my brother.

“He looked after me and Niko [Matawalu] when we were there. He took care of us and all our admin stuff and his kids got to know us very well. Sometimes it was funny because, after the game when we came into the post-match function as soon as they saw me and Niko they [Wilson’s three young children] rushed up to us like we were real brothers. Some of the boys asked why the kids loved us and I said I don’t know.

“I don’t know why the kids liked us but Ryan was like a brother to me and when I left last season we still speak on the phone and Skype each other and I still see him as one of my brothers. I haven’t seen the kids for ten months but they still recognise my voice on the phone!”

It seems that Nakarawa misses Glasgow almost as much as the club miss him, which is saying something.

He brought an added dimension to every game, not least that Belfast final. If it is stretching things to say Glasgow would not have won without him, beyond doubt it would have been an awful lot tighter than it turned out, the Fijian creating Glasgow’s opening two tries.

The man himself is a strange mix of traditional Fijian humility bolstered by an empowering self-belief that many great sportsmen/women in the world possess. At one point I congratulate Nakarawa on his sevens’ Olympic gold medal from Rio and suggest it must be the highlight of his career?

“I think that it is one of them,” he replies. “It is only the beginning, there is more to come. The Olympic Gold is just the beginning of a big future.”

What threats, I ask, will Racing pose to his former club? “We play as a team,” he replies. “Rugby is a 15-man game and our main aim is to play for the team and give our best from all of us because, if we do that, we will get a good outcome.”

What did he advise Racing about Glasgow’s threats?

“At the moment they haven’t asked me anything!”

What will you say if they ever get around to it? “We need to counter Glasgow’s open style of rugby, moving the ball with a fast ruck and especially the defence because Glasgow rush up and go for the ball a lot at the breakdown.”

At least Glasgow’s style of play made full use of their unique import because one French rugby journalist suggested that Racing were having difficulty getting the best out of Nakarawa.

In the bump and grind of the Top 14 they utilised him as a battering ram, which is a little like driving your Ferrari to the supermarket. It is perfectly capable of doing the run but it’s not why you bought it.

Racing are at the bottom of the European pool (with a match in hand) and are no better than eighth in the Top 14 after a series of reversals on the road.

More recently there are signs that things are improving and Nakarawa conjures up a quote from a recent team meeting that encapsulates the club’s current philosophy.

“We have won just one game away from home but we spoke about this last week as a team and someone said, ‘it doesn’t matter if you start late, if you finish first that is what matters’.”

The tortoise approach to the season seems to be bearing fruit. Last weekend, when Racing drew with La Rochelle, Townsend reckoned his former player enjoyed his best outing for his new club, 
including a handsome try. How, I ask him, is Nakarawa enjoying the forward-dominated Top 14?

“It is a new experience for me,” replies the Fijian diplomatically. “It is a close [forward orientated] game, a bit different from Glasgow because they play an open style of rugby.

“Here we play both open and closed and I think I am learning so I can adapt to both tight and open rugby. In future if I come across open rugby I can play open rugby. If I come across closed rugby I can play closed rugby. It is a new experience but I am enjoying it.”

Racing themselves have had an indifferent season but they only started pre-season a couple of weeks before the campaign in an attempt to peak at the right time and, after lifting the Bouclier de Brennus last season [as Top 14 winners], they have targeted the European Champions Cup this time around.

One out-sized Fijian adopts his game face when asked what it would feel like to play against his former mates?

“I am playing for Racing now,” Nakarawa growls down the telephone line, “and I want to do something great for my new club so that is it.

“During the game they 
[Glasgow] are my enemies, after the game we can become friends again.”