Return of the offload king: why Leone Nakarawa can lift Glasgow Warriors

Leone Nakarawa in action for Racing 92. Picture: Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images
Leone Nakarawa in action for Racing 92. Picture: Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images
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The finally confirmed return of fans’ favourite Leone Nakarawa to Glasgow Warriors has been tempered by reports that the club’s star lock Jonny Gray will leave Scotstoun at the end of the season.

The 25-year-old Gray’s contract expires in June and the speculation is that he will join Stuart Hogg at Exeter Chiefs in the summer.

A Glasgow Warriors spokesperson said “we don’t comment on speculation”, but it appears a move is on the cards and, following the departures of Hogg and stand-off Finn Russell to Racing 92 in the last couple of years, it means the ‘Big Three’ Scotland internationals who have driven the club’s success will all have gone.

Coach Dave Rennie also departs at the end of the season to become Australia coach, leaving the Warriors, who have been the major success story of Scottish rugby in the professional era, at something of a crossroads.

Currently sitting fourth in Conference A of the Guinness Pro14 following four wins and five losses, Glasgow’s European hopes are also precarious after defeats away to Exeter and at home to La Rochelle in Pool 2 of the Heineken Champions Cup.

The signing of Nakarawa, the Fijian offload king, former European player of the year and man-of-the-match in Glasgow’s historic Pro12 title win in 2015, provides a major boost but it is only a deal until the end of the season, subject to visa and medical.

It comes after he was sacked by Racing 92 for arriving back late following World Cup duty in Japan.

Nakarawa arrived in Glasgow yesterday after already signing the short-term contract. The 31-year-old, who made 69 appearances for the Warriors in his first spell at the club, is equally comfortable in second row or at No 8.

The 6ft 6in forward has 61 caps for Fiji, was named in the official Rugby World Cup team of the tournament at England 2015, and won an Olympic 
sevens gold medal at Rio in 2016.

He left Glasgow that year to join French giants Racing 92 and went on to play 86 games for the Paris club, scoring 23 tries during a three-year spell in the Top14.

Nakarawa said: “I’ve remained close with my ex-teammates during my time in Paris and they played a big role in my decision to come back.

“I’m really looking forward to working with Dave Rennie and the coaching staff. Glasgow Warriors play an attacking style, which suits the way I like to play.

“The [4G] pitch may be different but I can’t wait to see some familiar faces in the crowd when I run out at Scotstoun.”

Rennie added: “We’re rapt to welcome Leone back to Glasgow. Everyone knows how dangerous he is with ball in hand and Glasgow supporters have fond memories of his previous exploits in a Warriors jersey.

“Since his move Leone has continued to develop as a player and was named the European player of the year for the 2017-18 season.

“He is close with a lot of the players and we’re looking 
forward to welcoming him back into the squad this week.”

If Gray does leave in the summer it will perhaps open the door to Nakarawa’s stay being extended but it would also require further recruitment when new head coach Danny Wilson takes the reins from Rennie.

The former Cardiff Blues boss and current Scotland forwards coach is clearly well-regarded but it’s fair to say his appointment hasn’t been met with universal approval by Glasgow fans.

The last few years have seen Scotstoun packed out to its 7,351 capacity for almost every home game but that has been built on an entertaining and winning brand of rugby. And the SRU will be keen to ensure that doesn’t slip.

As for Gray, who has played for Glasgow more than 100 times and has 55 Scotland caps, a move out of the 
comfort zone and fresh challenge may be just what he needs.

An undoubted and formidable talent, the ferocious tackler has, arguably, not quite maximised his talent up to this point, missing out on selection for the last British and Irish Lions tour.

He was linked with a move to Bristol Bears two years ago but the Cambuslang man instead agreed to a new two-year 
contract at his hometown club, for whom he first signed in 2012.

“I am very happy to be at Glasgow,” he said back then after signing the new deal. “It is a place I love, it is the place I am from with family and friends. I feel when I run out I represent more than just myself.

“Cambuslang, the club that got me here, I represent them. My family, my friends, my Gran – when I go out it gives me a real buzz to play in front of them. And the fans – they are crazy, mental. It is great. When you speak to them, they are just good people.”