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Brendan Gallagher – Watch out England, Leone Nakarawa has it all

Leone NakarawaLeone Nakarawa is the Fijian rugby player of everybody’s dreams and most opponents’ nightmares. Long legged, lean and mean he can run like a back when the mood takes although he often prefers running through would-be tacklers instead.

He is also a lineout operator of some repute and since joining Glasgow two years ago has improved his scrummaging and mauling no end.

The former army officer is a leader his troops can rally round and if Fiji are to seriously inconvenience England at Twickenham on Friday the man from the gold mining town of Tavua needs to shine brightly.

He has already done that in a high-profile game, stealing the show with MoM honours for Glasgow in the Pro12 final this year when he produced a dazzling all-round display against Munster and at 27, and in his pomp, he is one of those players who could take RWC2015 by storm.

Nakarawa makes rugby look easy but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Four years ago he made his World Cup debut in New Zealand and struggled to make an impact in a badly underperforming Fiji squad although the fact he played at all was only down to a diplomatic intervention at the highest level.

Following the 2009 army-led Fiji coup, New Zealand denied all Fijian army personnel entry into the country and in 2011 Nakarawa was still a serving officer. Determined to avoid any diplomatic incidents New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key, no less, acted swiftly to ensure an exception was made for the big lock.

Life has moved on since and Nakarawa’s career has really taken off since his move to Glasgow at the instigation of their coach Gregor Townsend, an outstanding spotter of raw talent.

“Like many of us I’ve always held this almost stereotype image of a massive Fijian forward sprinting around the park, carrying the ball in one hand and off-loading like a basketball player,” recalls Townsend. “Then one afternoon I was watching a leg of the World Series Sevens at Scotstoun, Fiji ran out and there he was in the flesh.

“It was Leone and it took no time at all to appreciate his potential. I made a few enquiries via Niko Matawalu, our scrum-half at Glasgow, and he did a great job with the introductions. I also tracked down video footage and saw he was also, perhaps surprisingly, a solid performer in the tight.

“This was a player who would fit in very nicely in the Glasgow side we were trying to build. He had to quit the army which made it a little difficult but eventually we signed him and he flew over and settled down very well.”

There was a hiccough, though. One morning Townsend received an email from the Fijian army, via the Fiji Union, insisting the circumstances of his army release had been handled irregularly and that Leone was required back home immediately for an inquiry.

“That sounded a bit alarming but there was no question that he was required back home although I assured him his job was safe with us. A week later there was another email stating he had been sentenced to a month in prison for the irregular nature of his departure but soon after came a third email.

“This time it was formally requesting permission from us – he was after all our contracted player – for Leone to play for the army in the domestic Fijian play-offs despite being meant to be in prison! I smelt a fish, I rather fancy that might have been the original intention all along, but all we wanted at Glasgow was his return asap so we stepped into line.”

Nakarawa eventually made it back and has been an important part of the heartening Glasgow success story under Townsend, loving the ambition of a team that wants all their players to express themselves fully.

“He’s been terrific for us,” continues Townsend. “I can’t imagine moving from Fiji to Glasgow is the easiest thing but he’s hardly missed a beat. He’s focused, a quick and willing worker and has fulfilled all our hopes. For me his great attribute is that although he will never lose his speed, athleticism and off-loading ability he has mastered all the skill at lock – his lineout work is excellent and he’s very solid at scrum-time.

“I’ve only seen him out of sorts once. At the end of last season he was slightly off the boil, nothing dramatic but not quite himself. I had a quiet word and he said there was nothing bothering him.

“The next game he did very well off the bench in the Pro12 semi-final and the next week he gave that MoM performance against Munster. Afterwards he finally opened up and it transpired his Dad had been unwell back in Fiji and, having not been home for 11 months, he was naturally a little upset being so far away and having to rely on other family members to look after him.

“You forget these things so, having starred in the final, he jumped on the next plane.

“Leone could have a very big World Cup indeed. England will certainly need to watch him.”

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