Full steam ahead for Glasgow Warriors lock Leone Nakarawa

Leone Nakarawa has already encountered Northampton in Glasgow's 15-26 Champions Cup defeat at Scotstoun in November, left, and hopes to turn the tables at Franklin's Gardens today. Photographs: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

Leone Nakarawa has already encountered Northampton in Glasgow's 15-26 Champions Cup defeat at Scotstoun in November, left, and hopes to turn the tables at Franklin's Gardens today. Photographs: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

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Ahead of the Guinness Pro12 final between Glasgow and Munster last season, Gregor Townsend took lock Leone Nakarawa to one side and suggested that he cut down on the offloads. The coach’s thinking, as he explained later, was that the Fijian lock was so good at carrying the ball that he didn’t want Nakarawa to concentrate on anything else.

You can imagine the 6ft 6in Fijian looming over his boss, nodding his assent before completely ignoring it... thank goodness. Two sublime offloads later, Rob Harley and DTH van der Merwe had scored and Munster were looking at a long afternoon.

The big man freely admits that he shed tears ahead of that all-important game although he is a little coy about another rumour, that he fasted before the final. It is probably not a ploy endorsed by any sports nutrition gurus who, if it was that simple, would find themselves out of work pretty quickly.

“That’s my secret,” replies Nakarawa secretively. “It was my second final and I was looking forward to that game, and that’s why I did that because I wanted to create something special not only for the club but for myself too... I only told my close friends. I can’t say [if I’d do it again].”

Townsend first spotted Nakarawa when he played sevens for Fiji at Scotstoun in the now defunct Glasgow leg of the IRB series. Saracens were chasing him but his friend, Warriors’ scrum-half Niko Matawalu, provided the link to the Glasgow club and his colleague even if it meant the No.9 was eventually eclipsed as Scotstoun’s favourite Fijian.

The big lock was outstanding for Fiji at the World Cup which led to not one but two awards – the Pacific Island Players’ Association (PIPA) award for the best Fijian player and the PIPA best Pacific Island player.

Nakarawa turned out ten times for his country last year and managed five tries. He scored a brilliant solo effort straight off the training paddock against Racing 92 last weekend and now the big man is one of the few reasons why Glasgow still believe that they can beat Northampton this afternoon and keep their slender European Champions Cup hopes alive.

“We know they like [a] physical game and I think we can cope with that,” says the Fijian. “We can cope with their maul and set-piece. If we do our roles better than we did last week I think we can cope.

“If we play to our strength, because we like to run the ball a lot, if we dictate the game to them, I think we can win. We’re still in the competition but we need this win.”

While Glasgow are undoubtedly suffering a World Cup hangover it seems to have passed by their Fijian lock, whose form has been consistently excellent. Fiji had a tricky World Cup draw, having to play world-class sides in England, Australia and Wales, who they were a little unlucky not to beat, but Nakarawa seems to have revelled in the experience.

“I learned a lot from the World Cup,” he says. “It was a test and a fun experience for me because we don’t get to play a lot of tier one [nations] every year. In the World Cup we played three of them. It was a huge experience for me, it really helped me move forward, it was a boost for me.”

Glasgow will need the big man at his best this afternoon if they are to pull off the great escape. They would also appreciate some warm weather and a dry track to play their passing game, so one out of two isn’t bad.

So far this season fingers have been pointed at the World Cup, at the lack of accuracy in attack and at the huge number of unforced errors that have undermined Glasgow’s efforts but up until now almost no one has pointed the finger at the players’ own attitude.

Nakarawa hints that his team-mates have lost a little of the hunger that drove them to last season’s Pro12 title. Now, with a tangible cup standing in the Warriors’ trophy cabinet, the Fijian seems to suggest that his colleagues need to rediscover their appetite.

“People are still thinking we are champions,” he answers when asked why Glasgow have under-performed so far this season, “but we have to take off that mentality and go through this season as we went through last season: thinking of creating history for the club.

“Some of the boys have the mentality that because we’re champions, it will be easy for us. But this year will be harder because we are defending the title.

“It’s easy if you’re going for it (the championship) for the first time and it’s much harder when you’re defending it. Fans expect a lot from you because you’re defending it and that makes it harder for the players, and maybe to focus on your task, and a lot of teams try harder to beat you.”

Racing’s big forward pack scored all four tries against Glasgow last weekend and you can be sure that Saints boss Jim Mallinder will have taken note. Glasgow will expect a rigorous physical examination this afternoon, one, you could argue, that the Pro12 does little to prepare them for.

“That’s their [Northampton’s] game-plan, to be physical,” argues Nakarawa, “but we can match that and we’re looking forward to that this weekend. We need to take their maul away, destroy it and their set-piece and scrum, by being very physical.

“We’ve got a bunch of good boys [at Glasgow], the boys from Scotland who did well in the World Cup. We are still in it [the cup] and I believe in the boys. There’s a verse in the Bible about working together that says ‘if there’s unity God will command His blessing’.”

Glasgow’s best chance this afternoon may reside in an appeal to the Almighty unless, as looks plausible, He is already working through His own favourite Fijian.

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