Isi the saviour? Naisarani one step closer to Wallabies dream

Super Rugby
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

When Isi Naisarani boarded a plane to Australia from Fiji in 2016, he had a one-way ticket and no back-up plan.

Naisarani had spent one season in Brisbane in 2014 before returning to Fiji as his visa was being processed and when he returned, he was determined to make the most of his chance to build a career in rugby in Australia.

And Naisarani not only wanted to play in Australia, he wanted to play for Australia as well.

“When the opportunity came for me, I just wanted to take it with both hands because I knew it would only come once,” he said.

“When I got on the plane, I just thought, ‘I don't want to come back to Fiji, I want to go to Australia, this is the opportunity for me’.”

“When I was a young kid, I loved watching Super Rugby, loved watching the Wallabies, so it was a real chance for me.”

For Naisarani it was always the Wallabies that he aspired to be like, growing up watching Stephen Larkham and George Gregan in gold.

Even now, he spends much of his spare time watching Super Rugby or Sevens when he’s not training or playing himself.

Isi Naisarani has been an absolute beast for the Spirit. Photo: Getty Images“I just loved watching them and I can't believe I'm playing Super Rugby and that the Wallabies is a step closer to me now,” he said.

Living with his aunt and uncle in Mt Gravatt, Naisarani first played for Brisbane’s Souths, before being picked up for Brisbane City in the NRC, a season that sparked a flourishing Super Rugby career that has already spanned three franchises.

Not to mention awards and an ever-growing reputation. Naisarani was named the best player in his debut season at the Western Force in 2017, and he later won the RUPA medal of excellence as well.

He spent a year at the Brumbies before linking back up with ex-Force mentor Dave Wessels in Melbourne this year.

Naisarani's aunt and uncle supported the big forward financially when he arrived, and they asked just one thing of him in return - and he's close to fulfilling that promise.

”When I came here, they said, ‘You focus on your goal’," he said.

“One thing you give back to us is to wear the gold jersey and make us proud.”

In the past year, the 24-year-old has been about as close to a Wallabies jersey as you can get without actually playing, as he waited to satisfy World Rugby’s three-year residency rules.

Naisarani's residency ticked over in April of this year, making him available to play for the Wallabies and he is pencilled in by many as the new Wallabies no.8.

Naisarani won't be lacking for preparation, after being involved in almost every Wallabies training camp and wider squad in 2018.

It was only last week that he had his first meeting with the squad as a fully eligible member.

With the World Cup less than four months away now, the importance of the remainder of Super Rugby was not lost on Naisarani either after that most recent camp.

“When I went into camp, I started to feel like the World Cup is just around the corner and I know for me the stake of things now,” he said.

“When I came back here to Melbourne I wanted to give my best because everyone is competing for the no. 8, loose forward, everyone's playing good rugby.”

Naisarani already has some high-profile fans in Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, and his former Brumbies teammate David Pocock, who compared him to the electric Radike Samo on last year’s Spring Tour.

Ironically, should Naisarani earn a starting jersey in the Wallabies setup, it could be at the expense of an injury-afflicted Pocock, who has played at no. 8 in a dual openside structure alongside Michael Hooper in recent years.

The Wallabies haven't had a specialist no. 8 since Wycliff Palu retired from Test rugby, with Pocock, Jack Dempsey and Sean McMahon the regulars in that spot.

Naisarani fits that traditional no. 8 mould though and it’s a position he has played his entire life, steamrolling over opponents and not afraid to throw his body on the line.

“I love contact, I love contact. It's why I play rugby,” he said.

The backrower has a determination for improvement as well, and he credits former Reds lock Van Humphries as a major influence in that.

Humphries coached Naisarani at Souths and the Rebel said he had helped take his game to a new level.

“I remember when I came from Fiji, I didn’t really know how to jump in the lineout, so Van Humphries helped me with that,” he said.

“I loved watching Van Humphries playing for Reds and also Wallabies.

“When I came to Souths,  to see some good players, after rugby, coach club rugby.

“It really made me happy, he's the kind of  guy that you want to learn heaps from.”

Since arriving from Fiji, Naisarani has stayed on the move and lived in four major Australian cities.

But he feels settled in Melbourne and signed a new two-year deal this week.

“I've loved my time here, great coaching staff and good bunch of lads,” he said.

“I've been moving clubs for three years from Force to Brumbies to here, so for me now I want to stay in one club.”

And fulfil a promise to aunty and uncle.