Hines eases into new life of forward momentum
Leinster's refusal to rest on their laurels appealed to the Scottish international writes John O'Brien
THERE are several strands to every Lions tour. The midweek games against pumped-up provincial teams that serve as appetisers to the main draw, the tricky art of bonding four disparate groups of players, the selling of a declining brand and, not least, the winning and losing of the Test series itself. It is also a place where serious rugby people can come together and do business.
It was where Nathan Hines found himself somewhat at a loose end last summer. The Scotland second-row had spurned the chance to play for Perpignan in the semi-final and final of the French Top 14 in favour of touring with the Lions and, in so doing, knew he had burned his bridges with the Catalan club. He was 32 years old. Far from old for a combative forward, but hardly in the first flush of youth either. He knew he faced an uncertain future.
He'd got to know the Leinster boys pretty well but it was still a surprise when Brian O'Driscoll approached him one afternoon and floated the idea of Hines moving to Leinster. The Ireland captain arranged a phone call with Michael Cheika but Leinster didn't require a heavy sales pitch. For Hines the notion carried instant appeal and he liked it even better the first day he joined his new colleagues at the RDS.
"What really impressed me that day was the ambition the guys showed when we sat down and talked about the season. Like, I might have understood if they were saying 'well we won last year so we'll just keep winning and doing the things we were doing'. But they didn't say that. It was 'no, we need to be better than we were last season. We need to take it to another level'. That was a good sign. They were committed to taking an extra step."
Most of all it was clear they had a vision for the future that was bold and incisive. It had been an accident of timing that Hines' arrival followed the departure of Rocky Elsom. The loss of Elsom had induced a tremor among supporters who wondered how last season's towering No 6 could ever be replaced. Leinster studiously avoided that trappy route, though. How could you replace the irreplaceable?
"He left and I came. But we're not the same position. It wasn't like I was coming to replace him. Even if they'd signed a No 6 they still wouldn't have replaced Rocky because he had such an outstanding season last year. And to be fair Kevin McLaughlin has taken his chance really well. Cheiks is showing great faith in guys who didn't get much of a go last season. They're playing excellent rugby and I think that shows great foresight on his part."
In the abrasive Hines, Leinster knew what they were getting. An uncompromising lock forward who has always played on the edge of the law. In Scotland he made history by becoming their first international to be red-carded against the US in 2002. Three years later he rebelled against the rigid stewardship of Matt Williams and quit the fold until the more liberal Frank Hadden coaxed him back the following year.
For all his rough edges, though, coaches have mostly appreciated the bite and bollock Hines brings to a pack. He found it encouraging that Leinster didn't want him to be anything other than Hines himself. Last season the Leinster pack had developed a noticeably harder edge and it helped propel them to glory in Edinburgh. But this year they wanted more. They wanted to set the bar higher. Hines fitted snugly into that ambitious picture.
It has been an enthralling journey thus far. From Wagga Wagga, a small town between Melbourne and Sydney, to Ballsbridge via the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. In Australia he'd played a couple of seasons for Manly and, during his first season, had come up against a Randwick team featuring Cheika. He didn't know Cheika, but remembers him as a hard, uncompromising No 8 and he sees those qualities now as coach.
Hines left Australia in 1998, thinking he would head to London with his girlfriend, Leann, before a friend diverted him north to Gala where they had an opening for a second-row forward. He played two seasons there before moving on to Edinburgh and was happy his induction to western life came away from the big city. "I'm glad we moved to Galashiels," he says. "The people there took us in straight away. We still have so many friends there."
Moving to Dublin held no obvious fears. On the night he made his debut against the Dragons he looked around at a nearly-packed RDS and concluded he had made the perfect move. "To be honest I was overwhelmed. At Perpignan they had 9,500 season ticket holders and people in France like to think they are the best supported teams in Europe. But the figures suggest Leinster are even better supported."
His four years in the south of France -- happy ones despite the sour ending -- makes him a valuable commodity for Leinster before the visit of Brive on Saturday. He knows Leinster have enough experience to know what to expect of a visiting French team but he will remind them anyway and they will be glad to hear him say it. So he will tell them how fickle French teams can be and the importance of establishing an early foothold.
"The thing is you never know what you'll get: they could play unbelievable rugby or they could play no rugby at all. The main thing is to impose your game on them. Don't give them the chance to play. If you get on top of them they find it hard to come back. It's important to hit the ground running any game, but particularly against a French team."
Hitting the ground running is exactly what Hines has done. Last summer he observed the constant banter the Irish players conducted between themselves on tour and soon became absorbed in it himself. True to form, Donncha O'Callaghan had wasted little time in exhuming 'chokegate', the unfortunate episode at Murrayfield in 2007, after which Eddie O'Sullivan accused the blameless Hines of choking Ronan O'Gara.
The incident annoyed Hines for a time but then O'Gara apologised later that year and now he can see the funny side. The night before Jonathan Sexton made his Ireland debut against Fiji, the young out-half's phone buzzed with a good-luck message from Hines. 'Hope you play well and make it for the Six Nations', it said, 'and I might get the opportunity to choke you instead of ROG.'
Little surprise that he has fit in like a well-worn glove.