Hardman Hines a vital cog in Blues' machine
Published 01/04/2011 | 05:00
It was a day of low maintenance on the High Veldt, mid-2009 Lions Tour. Brian O'Driscoll, reigning Grand Slam and Heineken Cup champion, was prowling the team hotel as voraciously as a famished lion.
Then he spotted his prey.
Despite standing two metres tall and weighing in at some 120kg, the Irish captain homed in for the kill. "Ever thought about joining Leinster?" the Dubliner drawled. Nathan Hines succumbed like a slobbering adolescent.
Next thing he knew, the Aussie-born Scottish international from Wagga Wagga was going ga-ga on the phone to Michael Cheika. It was the birth of another Leinster cult hero.
Thirty-eight games later, he has started every one of Leinster's 14 Heineken Cup outings since arriving in Dublin, forming a doughty partnership with the equally rugged club captain Leo Cullen in the second-row.
He can fill in at blind-side flanker too, but the line-out jumper offers Leinster much more than mere aerial prowess; he marries the deft handling skills of a Top 14 back-row with a nastiness not seen in Leinster colours since Trevor Brennan bade adieu.
Hines' disciplinary past would make even Paul Gascoigne squirm and yet -- a pointed sin-bin on his only other visit to Thomond Park aside -- he has curtailed the wild excesses that rendered him a bête noire throughout Europe.
All the more pity, then, that club and player couldn't see eye-to-eye on the terms of a contract extension to frank coach Joe Schmidt's apparent enthusiastic interest in retaining the 72-times capped player, despite his 35 years.
Have boots with travel. "I just want to play on as long as I can," is Hines' attitude.
And so he will pitch up again in France next year, with Schmidt's old employers Clermont, bridging the two-season gap since a controversial departure from Perpignan.
Leinster will miss their enforcer. He's no Rocky Elsom, but then with Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip destroying all before them in the back-row, there was no need for him to be.
He's a grunter, a demolition man at ruck-time whose clearing out enables the likes of Heaslip and O'Brien, and then the outside backs, to strut their stuff. Leinster's game is predicated upon quick ball; Hines' heft is an integral component of the production line.
More, his defence is superlative, whether standing up to maul or stooping to tackle, and his delicious offloads in traffic continue to reflect how rare this raw skill is within this country's native exponents.
Hines' presence may not be headline-grabbing beyond the confines of the Leinster dressing-room and their rabid supporters, but it is difficult to overstate how crucial he has been to the club.
Perhaps his absence will focus more minds. Offered only a one-year deal by Leinster when he wanted two, both sides had reasonable arguments. Clermont's more lucrative offer -- only a one-year with an option -- ended the debate.
With Trevor Hogan retired, Ed O'Donoghue's career disappearing into a black hole and Mariano Galarza emulating fellow Puma Juan Gomez' negligible impact, there was an argument for keeping Hines, but his central involvement in Scotland's World Cup squad was another factor working against him.
Hines started at blindside in the Six Nations against France, lock against Wales and was sprung from the bench against Ireland, before reverting to blindside for the clash against England and his side's sole success against Italy, where his trademark off-load created the opening try.
It's now 72 caps and counting. He has come a long way.
Thirteen years ago, he was playing for rugby league side North Sydney Bears when they ditched him after re-arranging their age grades; he played some union, but didn't fancy hanging around for a dumb telecommunications job.
So, he decided to start back-packing around Europe with his girlfriend (now wife) Leann.
Aside from the passports, all they had was a letter from Scottish club Gala and the knowledge that he had a Scottish grandmother.
"I thought we'd go for six months and then come home," he said recently. The rhythm of Gala mirrored that of the Manly he had left. With one obvious exception. "There was no beach."
He'd learned enough from a brief code switch in Manly -- where he once encountered a tough No 8 from Randwick named Cheika -- and a few gems of wisdom purloined from Wallaby legend Willie Ofahengaue to ensure a swift transition to the professional game.
Within two years of arriving in Netherdale, he was playing for Scotland in New Zealand. Big moves to Edinburgh and Brive followed.
Charming off the field, he has often been charmless on it. He was the first Scot to be red-carded on international duty for the first of a series of what would become instantly recognisable haymakers.
He has been wronged, too, incorrectly identified as the player who 'choked' Ronan O'Gara in Murrayfield four years ago, a claim even the Munster man later ridiculed in his book.
Now the incident merely prompts farce. Donncha O'Callaghan used to rib him in South Africa that it was Denis Leamy who first accused Hines of being the 'Murrayfield Strangler.'
"But then," O'Callaghan would add, "he also says he saw who shot JFK."
Despite his chequered disciplinary past, his colleagues will always point to his as an utterly calming influence. Certainly age has mellowed him.
So, too, fatherhood; following a tortuous six-year process during which they had repeatedly tried artificial insemination and IVF treatment, Leann and Nathan's pride and joy, Joshua, was born a little over two years ago.
His family is complete and soon his playing career will begin to dim amidst twilight.
To ignorant detractors, he is a mobile mercenary. In essence, though, he is a travelling troubadour, who has gifted and received improvement at his every station.