Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, marvels at a Fijian super man who starred as the Champions Cup kicked off and pays tribute to a Cornish great.
European rugby is amongst us again and if anyone fancies a team other than Saracens to win the Champions Cup they probably need their head examined.
But anyone who watched what Leone Nakawara, Racing 92’s Fijian lock, did on Saturday and did not recognise a special talent should be carted off by the men in white coats and locked up immediately. If Saracens want a proper match after they destroyed Northampton 57-13 on Sunday they would find one if someone could find 14 clones of Nakawara.
It was all off this weekend.
The first round of games saw some of the best rugby you will see from the two-time champions at Franklin’s Gardens prompting a social media debate on whether they would win the Six Nations.
You could have a decent row in your local if you thought an England team minus, its Sarries players would beat Saracens, but you would not have any arguments coming your way if you said Nakawara could play a bit.
Amongst other things on the first weekend, Leinster beat Montpellier, Exeter knocked off Glasgow, Wasps lost to Ulster on Friday, Ospreys gave Clermont a bit of shake and the Scarlets nicked a losing bonus point at Toulon. In the Challenge Cup, brilliantly, Krasny Yar, from Siberia, beat Stade Francais 34-29.
It was another great opener to the world’s greatest club competition and anyone – yep that’s you southern hemisphere types – who thinks anything else can get back in their box. All this and Rob Andrew’s book coming out too – but Nakawara topped the bill.
But those of us lucky enough to be at the Stade Yves du Manoir in Paris on Saturday for Leicester’s 22-18 defeat by Racing 92 saw something completely and utterly bonkers.
We toilers in the media are often accused of over-hyping players. But this one does not need any over-hyping.
Nakawara, a good score in Scrabble as well as a brilliant rugby player, stands at 6ft 9in and tips the scales at just over 19 stone. Nothing to write home about really in this modern game of giants but how many of the current behemoths can pass a ball like Michael Jordan used to on a basketball court? And how many times did Jordan do it when he had about half of Leicester hanging off him like Christmas decorations on a tree?
It might just have been the greatest display by a lock since Martin Johnson’s turn for England, against Australia in Melbourne, on their pre-World Cup tour down under in June 2003. That was Johnson’s greatest game for England and even the finest of lock of his generation must be glad he called it quits in November that year if this is what the current lot are up to.
If Nakawara has not been kicked out of the forwards’ drinking club by now, for his unfeasible ball skills, he should be drummed right out of the door forthwith. The food in Paris was good, the wine was better but Nakawara was off the scale. What a player.
And if the fat boys up front do kick him out of their social sessions he could easily join the backs and there are not many locks you could say that about. I bet he can drink everyone under the table too – there is not much this fellow can’t do.
The Parisian ground staged the 1924 Olympics made famous by the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ when Harold Abrahams won the 100m and Eric Liddell won the 400. Nakawara would probably have won both of them – and a couple of field events, directed the film and hosted the post-premiere party whilst dishing out the canapes– he can do the lot.
We should have got used to this from Fijians by now. Rupeni Caucaunibuca is without doubt the most talented wing to lace a pair of boots and Nakawara would not be far off in the lock department.
In the old days second rows used to jump in line-outs, push in scrums and dish out the odd right-hander to members of the opposite team. Passing was optional but Nakawara passes like John Dawes.
Apparently he can offload like he does because he used to play rugby in the Nasivi River back home and the water would be up to his neck.
And Leicester were up to their neck in it whenever he got the ball. Having telescopic arms might help and sometimes Nakawara had three or four Tigers all over him and he still got the ball away. It was ridiculous. My colleague from The Sunday Times, sitting next to me, barely stopped laughing at the ludicrousness of it all.
Time and again Nakawara looked like he was going to get enveloped by a wall of Leicester defenders and time and again he got the ball away. In between he won his line-outs, scored a try, made a couple and did everything bar dish out the right-handers. That was the only blot on Nakawara’s copybook.
Leicester knew what was coming and they had a cunning plan. But it still didn’t work.
As Matt O’Connor, the Leicester director of rugby, told us on Saturday night: “Well we didn’t do a great job on him. He is a special athlete. He is a big man, he offloads the ball and he moves really well. Once he is behind you it is very difficult and that is probably the lesson for us next time around at Welford Road to not let him get in behind you. With those Fijian lads, they love open spaces and they are very hard to stop as we found today.”
Glasgow fans must be spitting. The 29-year-old left the Scottish side in 2016 to head to Paris and if he is filling his boots with Euros he is worth every cent.
Oh yes, he can play Sevens too. He won an Olympic gold with Fiji in Rio and scored a try in the final as Great Britain were slaughtered 43-7. What would old school locks like Johnson, Colin Meads and Geoff Wheel make of it all?
If you are a fan of Leicester, you can see him again later in the competition, if you are a fan of Munster or Castres – then look out. Nakawara is coming after you.
**
The saddest news of the week came on Tuesday when it was announced that Claude Brian ‘Stack’ Stevens, one of the giants of the Cornish and England games, had passed away at the age of 77.
Those of you who did not have to live through the 1970s and English rugby’s lack of titles – they did not win a Grand Slam between 1957 and 1980 – might be interested to know that that uncelebrated team did knock a few heads together. And Stevens was at the heart of it.
In 1972, a side captained by the great Bristol hooker John Pullin stunned the Springboks 18-9 – at Ellis Park in Johannesburg of all places – after they had been beaten up in the provincial games.
In September 1973, again with Pullin at the helm, they overcame the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland 16-10 when prop Stevens scored a try. Again the trip had not been all sweetness and lightness but they rose to the occasion when they arrived in the lair of the Kiwis.
And a couple of months later, at Twickenham, just to go through the card, they knocked over the Wallabies 20-3. God knows what price you would have got on that accumulator coming up.
Only seven players started all three of those Tests. And one of those was the teak-tough farmer from Penzance who won 25 England caps and was a tourist with the 1971 British & Irish Lions.
The other six players to complete the hat-trick against the southern hemisphere big three were Pullin, fly-half Alan Old, lock Chris Ralston, and the back row trio of John Watkins, Tony Neary and the irrepressible No.8 Andy Ripley.
Those were the glory days when men really were men. In the game against the Boks Stevens had to go off for a bit of treatment, no replacements then, and Watkins, the flanker from Gloucester, and on his debut, did a turn in the front row.
Stevens played like he could do a turn almost anywhere. His try at Eden Park should have got him kicked out of the Front Row Union and he played more than 500 times for Penzance & Newlyn and 83 times for Cornwall.
He also did a stint with Harlequins when he used to deliver vegetables to Covent Garden market on a Friday, keep up the Quins scrum on a Saturday and drive back to Cornwall with his takings in his pocket.
All this is chronicled in ‘Stack Stevens: Cornwall’s Rugby Legend’ by Steve Tomlin which came out in August last year.
Stevens also lobbied for Cornwall to compete independently in the Commonwealth Games but in later years was struck down by an illness, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, which left him unable to speak.
On the pitch his deeds spoke for themselves.