Just as Warriors fans feared there was more chance of Danny Wilson announcing a new clothing line than a significant addition to his Guinness PRO14 squad, along came a whopper that changes the narrative around a vital summer of recruitment. In convincing Leone Nakarawa, the colossal Fijian lock, to spend another year at Scotstoun, Glasgow have pulled off a hugely important capture.
How often can it be said that a truly world-class athlete is not only playing his club rugby in Scotland but choosing that club above a host of richer and more storied suitors? Even at 32, Nakarawa falls firmly into the world-class bracket.
Glasgow – and in particular Gregor Townsend – invested a heap of time in getting the best out of him in his first spell at Warriors, coaxing phenomenal talent from the softly-spoken juggernaut.
In doing so, deep bonds and a dear love for the city were forged and a PRO12 title emphatically clinched. This connection brought the Fijian back for a second (and now a third spell) at a place and a club where he feels cherished. Generic talk of culture abounds these days, but it reflects extremely well on successive Glasgow environments that Nakarawa has chosen to return – and stay put – after his rancorous departure from Racing 92.
As things now stand, Wilson’s three frontline locks are Scott Cummings, Richie Gray and Nakarawa. That is a brilliant array, with young Hamish Bain likely to follow, and the possible retention of Kiran McDonald, who did a fine job last term.
?? Danny Wilson know's all about Leone Nakarawa's abilities
Find out what he had to say on Nakarawa's decision to remain at the club: https://t.co/HcX5NwG16q
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) June 24, 2020
Cummings is a supreme athlete with a massive engine, pace and footballing skill around the paddock, a leader in the lineout and one of the premier young second rows in the league. Gray seems to be over the injuries that dogged him in France having helped Toulouse decimate the Top 14 a year ago. His credentials are blaring and he will have designs on winning back his place in the national team.
As for Nakarawa, it is not merely what the hulking lock brings to the table with his outrageous skill set, intelligence and versatility, but what he inspires in those around him. Accurate offloads win games, sloppy off-loads lose them.
Soon after Nakarawa arrived this year on a short-term deal, Glasgow went from the eleventh-highest offloaders in the PRO14 to the top of the charts. He only played in two league games, yet his fingerprints were all over Glasgow’s improving form.
“The biggest thing about him is he brings confidence to people around him,” said outgoing Warriors attack coach Jason O’Halloran to RugbyPass last week. “I know Leone throws the odd loose offload, but all of a sudden guys are thinking about moving the ball in the tackle straight away.
“Our offload numbers went up, but our offload accuracy was always above 80 per cent and that’s a key threshold for us. If we’re making twelve offloads, we want nine or ten of those to stick. As important a weapon as an offload is, it will also kill you if you throw dusty ones.”
If Glasgow are serious about winning titles and making deeper inroads in Europe while inexorably losing their prime Scottish talent, then Nakarawa is the kind of player they need. They couldn’t keep Jonny Gray forever, but what a boon to be able to replace him with his elder brother and one of the most coveted forwards in world rugby.
Might having Nakarawa signed up now catch the eye of other high-calibre targets? Might Glasgow’s reputation for developing and looking after its Pacific Islanders lead to the arrival of more Fijian gems?
There is big excitement around Jale Vakaloloma, the massive back row Dave Rennie signed from Australia’s National Rugby Championship, after his maiden season was entirely scuppered by injury. The story goes that Rennie had to fight hard to keep him, with Scottish Rugby minded to call off the move when he arrived in Glasgow with a serious injury.
"And are you going to shell out £300-400k for a slightly-better-than-mediocre Super Rugby player, or do you develop young guys?"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 21, 2020
Nobody is asking Warriors to sign two World Cup winners, as Munster have done in RG Snyman and Damian de Allende, or fork out eye-watering cash for a mediocre Kiwi. If, for instance, you can pay Glenn Bryce in the region of £50,000 a year, is a solid Super Rugby alternative worth the £300,000-plus asking price?
Is he six or seven times the player of Bryce? Does he bring enough value off the field in the currency of cultural input, fresh thinking, work ethic, intelligence and personality to justify the outlay?
On their budget, Glasgow have to get these decisions right and they didn’t do that often enough in the old Rennie era. Through injuries or non-selection, too many overseas signings failed to hit the mark – Lelia Masaga, Samu Vunisa, Tevita Tameilau, Nick Frisby, Siua Halanukonuka have all come and gone without yielding the desired impact.
In fact, some of the best Rennie acquisitions were returning players. Among the most impressive were DTH van der Merwe and Ruaridh Jackson, with Niko Matawalu, Nakarawa and now the elder Gray coming back for more too.
TRY! "That was all about Leone Nakarawa!"
Glasgow strike first in Belfast.
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) June 21, 2020
The danger in this is that Glasgow become seen as a retirement home for fondly remembered veterans, but each has brought valuable contributions. There are caveats to the Nakarawa clamour, of course. Firstly, he has only signed a one-year deal and we’re not entirely sure what the end of the current season and pattern of the next is going to look like just yet.
You could argue that Glasgow would have been better served to invest his sizeable salary in other areas of the squad that might yield a more sustained return, but you’d be wrong. Even a year of Nakarawa is money well spent.
Secondly, the lock is back home in Fiji awaiting the birth of his child and is not due in Scotland until August, weeks before the PRO14 is scheduled to resume with some meaty inter-pro derby action. Away from the Glasgow conditioners and amid the stresses of prospective fatherhood, how close to playing, physically and tactically, will Nakarawa be when he returns to the country?
He hadn’t played in three months when he re-signed for Warriors in January and yet was deemed ready to start a must-win European trip to Sale Sharks less than two weeks after fetching up. He shouldn’t take long to get up to speed.
He doesn’t fix all of Glasgow’s problems. He doesn’t assuage the need for another bruiser in the back row or another option at fly-half or first-choice full-back. But he is a unique game-breaking weapon. Even in these coronavirus-ravaged times, another year of prime Nakarawa is an exhilarating prospect.
Thanks @JLyall93 for taking time to go through this with me during the week – tough to revisit at times. During this incredibly difficult period it's important to realise that it's OK not to be OK and things will get better. https://t.co/pzOt3HGNVr
— Graeme Morrison (@gmorri) April 12, 2020
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