Saturday 23 November 2019

Hines still means business

The veteran forward is sad to be departing but he has made his mark at Leinster, says Brendan Fanning

N athan Hines was the only one being whisked off to do interviews for French tv in the Millennium Stadium last weekend. It was a challenge for him, seeing how much of his vocabulary had been trimmed in the two years since he had left the mad Catalans in Perpignan. More of a challenge than he was looking for at that point, when all he wanted to do was share the moment with his team-mates, to figure out in English never mind French how they had done what they had done.

Thinking in French was a reminder too that his time with Leinster was almost up. The next came in Riverview, Leinster's training base, on the Tuesday. A handful of players were posing for the cameras in next season's kit. It was their first day back training, spirits were soaring after Cardiff, and kept aloft by the prospect of Munster this weekend. Munster appealed to him for sure, but when he got home after training it was to cardboard boxes and labels and a million things to be done. By Tuesday, he will be gone.

At least for Hines it has been mission accomplished. When he swapped the sweltering heat of the south of France for a dismal Irish summer in 2009 he gave an interview in which he remarked on how far Leinster had come from the days when he had played them with Edinburgh. They always saw the fixture as winnable, their opponents as unreliable. That had changed. And the best bit he reckoned was that the squad, who had just won their first Heineken Cup, wanted to move onwards and upwards. And he was going to be a part of that journey.

"Yeah, and I got a lot of help in doing it from 50 players this year," he says. "I think Leinster is a very stable club now and a really complete team, so it's quite hard for other teams to break them down. I'm just glad that before I left I got a chance to win a Heineken Cup.

"It's emotional now for me having to leave. I wouldn't call myself a journeyman -- I've been in only two clubs before now in 13 years or something so it's not like I was moving around every couple of years, but leaving now is quite hard for me. Watching the guys getting their photos taken was the first time (it hit him). You know I've thought about it before -- not being here next season -- but that was the first time I saw guys making their preparations for next year and you'd always want to be a part of it. And that saddened me. I wasn't in a good mood for a while after that."

He will be badly missed. Hines was a replacement for Rocky Elsom in so far as he took the flanker's place as one of the allotted five players on the NIQ (non-Irish qualified) roster at Leinster. He didn't create the same hurricane effect that had blown opponents out of Elsom's way but then that wasn't on his job spec. Hines is a hard, skilful and reliable player who made the most of his 37 starts (plus nine off the bench) in the second row where he did a first-rate job. And when he was posted at number six he did that job fairly well too.

The two seasons have flown past. Much of the first was clouded by having his wife and infant son trekking back and forward to Australia where his mother-in-law was seriously ill. Sadly, she passed away last year.

This season was less stressful. The family were reunited and settled in Dublin and the breadwinner was playing even more games, and with not a card in sight. It is a testament to the discipline of someone who pitches his tent close to the edge. So why is he going to Clermont? There was a line he had been offered a one-year extension but knocked it back in favour of double that in the Auvergne. Not so, he says.

"You can't double nothing mate. Joe (Schmidt) and Jono (Gibbes) wanted me to stay but I got denied as an NIQ player. Joe said what about one year, but they (the IRFU) said no. It's business isn't it really? It would have been a bit more disappointing had I not got a good club to go to. Or if I was told later, and I had no club at all to go to. Then I might have been bitter about it but things will work out. I've nothing against the club at all -- they wanted me to stay on."

He looked utterly at home here, playing great rugby in a team chasing greatness. As happy as players get to be in this game. "Yeah, that's why I'm so sad to go. That's why I was sad watching the guys putting on the jerseys for next year because it wasn't my intention to leave. It was something I wanted to be a part of. I really enjoyed the last couple of years because of the rugby that we've been playing and the guys in the dressing room who've been great. Like, I was only here for a day and people in the street were welcoming me to Dublin and wishing me luck for the next two years. It was nice that people were so welcoming."

You can understand the union's position too however. He will be 35 in November. His replacement, Steven Sykes from the Sharks, will be 27 in August, and critically will be available to Leinster when the international window opens, whereas Hines would be off with the Scots during those same periods. It's business -- cold but not unfair. And we all should be grateful that Hines got to conclude some business of his own with a try-scoring performance in Cardiff. First there was the nightmare to endure.

"They were outstanding in the first half," he says. "Their pack's good and their scrummaging technique is effective -- maybe not so much legal but it was very effective. They were very aggressive and abrasive at the breakdown and that sort of caught us in the first half. It was tsunami stuff and that was on the back of us not getting any momentum at the scrum and then we'd keep turning ball over and stuff. But the pressure came from ourselves as well as Northampton -- it increased their effectiveness without us knowing it. It got their tails up. They smashed into everything."

His try when it came was immensely satisfying, from the offload that started it to the close combat work that rounded it off, but by then he already believed his team couldn't be stopped. There was an energy throughout the group that was fed by the emptiness they saw across the trenches.

"I can't remember which try it was -- in fact it I think it was the penalty (to go ahead for the first time) -- I just remember looking across and seeing it in their faces, they were just thinking to themselves: 'How are we going to stop this?' Like, they didn't really have an answer. And their heads were dropping every time we'd get a penalty or score. You could just tell they had no answer.

"I've been in that situation myself. When you're playing the All Blacks it's hard not to be. To be fair, everybody's probably been in that position. We sensed it on Saturday. You know, guys couldn't get back to the half-way quick enough to restart. I hadn't been involved in a half like that before."

He laughs about the stuff that is already part of folklore, the transformative words spoken at half-time. "It was nothing that I could have said! I had a little bit of a knock on my knee so I was getting some physio. I remember him (Jonathan Sexton) saying it was part of the story but I didn't really need much motivation. I was just thinking about what I had to do for the next 40 minutes and how I could try and right the wrongs and mistakes I'd made in the first half. Speeches and half-time talk aside I think the thing that makes this team so good is that guys sort their own stuff out and make sure they're doing their job. And everything sort of falls into place. And I'm not the only one who feels that way."

Hines came up to this end of the world on a flyer, in 1998. It was mostly about OE (overseas experience) where someone -- in this case Gala in Scotland -- were prepared to pay his flight and sort his accommodation if he filled a hole in their second row. Although born in the uniquely named Wagga Wagga, he was raised in the pleasant seaside town of Terrigal, an hour's spin up the coast from Sydney, where Ireland were based for their early pool games in the 2003 World Cup.

"That stadium where you guys played was where I played all my rugby league finals as a kid," he says. "It wasn't a stadium then -- just a park with a grandstand. I grew up there. I played rugby league until I was 19. I played a bit of union and volleyball and athletics. I played union for about a year or so -- volleyball one weekend, union the next."

When his league career ground to a halt he switched to union, and when a mate came back from a stint in Scotland -- coincidentally Hines's maternal grandfather hailed from Govan in Glasgow -- he gave that a whirl. A successful year of club rugby led to a contract from Edinburgh, and then a career with Scotland which, bar him fleeing the sinking ship that had Matt Williams and Willie Anderson at the helm, has been mostly positive. He returned when they had left, and currently his cap tally stands at 72, with more to come.

Going back to France now will be interesting. For four years Hines soldiered with the USAP boys. He had gone there as an Edinburgh player and felt the sharp edge of one of the most manic teams in Europe when they are on their own patch. Then he signed up and doled out a fair amount of punishment himself. He left prematurely to hook up with the Lions in 2009, as Perpignan were closing in on their first French Championship in 54 years.

"Yeah, it'll be interesting," he says of his return when Clermont play there next season. "I left my contract a year early to come here but that's life I suppose. Most of the fans at (Stade) Aimé Giral will be happy to see me."

Oh yeah?

"Well there'll always be a couple that you can't please but what can you do about that? I've kept in touch with people down there and they're happy that I'm going back to France, and they wish that I could have gone back to play at USAP. But they weren't looking for a second row at the time. No, they weren't really interested."

Luckily, Clermont were. He will slot in there like he did in Leinster, bringing quality to everything he does. Next time we hear Nathan Hines it may well be on a Heineken Cup day when the Sky people fish him out to talk English after the match. He'll be worth a listen.

For more from Brendan Fanning see

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