Nacewa: The Hunger Is Huge After Last Year
Leinster captain Isa Nacewa believes the pain of last season’s semi-final defeat to Clermont Auvergne can drive his side onto greater heights in the Champions Cup.
Following their 30-19 last-eight win over Saracens at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday, Leo Cullen’smen will return to the Lansdowne Road venue for a mouth-watering semi-final showdown with GUINNESS PRO14 rivals, the Scarlets, in three weeks’ time.
With the reintegration of Ireland’s Grand Slam winners enhancing the depth of their squad, Isa Nacewa highlighted the province’s desire to go a step further in Europe in 2018.
“We’ve got a real motivated squad. A lot of guys coming off the back of a Grand Slam. They’ve come back in and added another level of intensity and hunger to the team. We’re a strong squad. There’s a lot of guys that missed out on playing (today) that would have been itching to be there. The hunger is huge,” said the 35-year-old skipper.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, losing in a semi-final like we did last year away to Clermont. That’s etched in the back of our head. Something that we don’t like feeling and something we talked about a lot in the off-season to learn from. We took another step today to earn another 80 minutes of footy. We’re happy to be in the semis.”
With Munster taking care of previous Champions Cup kingpins Toulon at Thomond Park 24 hours earlier, it was the turn of Leinster to knock out defending champions Saracens. Mark McCall’s side did not go down without a fight and Nacewa praised the resolve shown by Sarries as their three-in-a-row dreams came to an end.
“We respect everything that Saracens do. We knew they’re a champion side. They’re going to fight and keep fighting, and they did that. I think a lot of credit goes to our bench. They came on and stuck to the systems, and gave everyone a lift when needed.
“They’re a team that are very good at chipping away. Three (points), six, nine to stay in a game and claw at a game. They did that, but a big moment at the end of the (first) half there to keep them out. We got into the half, took a deep breath and just started again really.”
Just twelve months after winning his third European Cup title with Leinster in 2012, Nacewa announced his retirement from professional rugby. The absence of several international stars during the 2015 World Cup prompted the Auckland native’s return to the fold in Dublin, and he has been a key player during Cullen’s coaching reign.
As the elder statesman of the squad – and the on-field leader-in-chief – the versatile back is ideally placed to run the rule over the young prospects that are currently making waves at senior level.
“You look at guys like James Tracy, Dan Leavy, these guys went through those times (last season’s semi-final losses in Europe and the PRO12), went on to win a Grand Slam. James Ryan, in particular, and those guys. They come back and the hunger is huge. It’s up to learning from those places that you fell down and going again. A lot of the young guys add a huge level of enthusiasm to the squad at the moment.”
While they have come up against a number of English and French clubs in recent European campaigns, Leinster are now preparing to do battle against a familiar foe.
In addition to last season’s PRO12 semi-final meeting at the RDS, Cullen’s charges recently played the Scarlets in two league fixtures during the Six Nations Championship. Nacewa accepts this is a considerable advantage, but knows Leinster will need to be on their game against Wayne Pivac’s free-running outfit.
“You definitely know a lot of the players a hell of a lot more. Obviously three times in the last calendar year alone we’ve played them. It has been a bit of a rivalry for us in the last while. They definitely got one up over us in the RDS last year, in the semi.
“They’re such a good, attacking side these days. They showed that the other evening (in their quarter-final win over La Rochelle). It’s a really big challenge for us and one we’ll have to learn from today and build for,” he explained.