Divided loyalties for Nathan Hines as Clermont face Leinster

Nathan Hines came so close with  Clermont Auvergne. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Nathan Hines came so close with Clermont Auvergne. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
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He was three years at Clermont, two at Leinster. He lifted the European Cup with the Dublin outfit and lost a final with what is still reckoned to be the best club never to have won the big one. Little wonder that Nathan Hines is torn between today’s two semi-finalists.

“I’ll be watching but I have no preference who wins,” says the big Aussie. “I’ll be happy and disappointed whatever happens. Those were important clubs to me in my career. As in any job you want to learn from every place you work and I have learned a lot from every club but especially those two.

Nathan Hines tasted glory with Michael Steele/Getty Images

Nathan Hines tasted glory with Michael Steele/Getty Images

“Leinster exposed me to guys who had a great way with each other, a team of players that knew what they expected of each other and trusted each other to do their job. They were at the end of that learning curve, whereas Clermont was in the middle of theirs.

“Leinster haven’t lost for a long time and Clermont’s last five games have had two losses at home so it’s going to be tough. Clermont have more of a knowledge how Leinster tick with Jonno [Gibbes, former Leinster coach] who’s worked there before but it’s a tough one to call. As you know, finals rugby is what happens on the day, the form guide goes out the window.”

Hines was involved in two of the most remarkable finals ever witnessed, with the happier memories coming when clad in blue. Leinster overturned a half-time defecit of 22-6 to overcome Northampton Saints at Twickenham with 27 unanswered second-half points, Leinster looking more like Lazerus on the day.

“I don’t think there was a thought that it wasn’t,” Hines replies when asked if the team thought that victory was still within their grasp at half-time. “I don’t think we were thinking, ‘we can do this’, we were thinking, ‘there’s no way we can’t do this. There’s nothing stopping us.’ The thing about that team at the time was we had confidence in our own ability.

“We were just trying to be relentless in everything we did. I remember [Johnny] Sexton scoring that first try and he couldn’t wait to pick the ball up to get back to halfway and score again. That was the sort of mentality we had, to put as much pressure as possible on them as we could. We’re just going to chuck everything at ’em. They’re the kind of games that are as close to internationals as you can get.”

His second experince of cup final rugby was a little less inspiring as Clermont were leading Toulon for much of the match before a breakaway try by Delon Armitage sealed the silverware for Mourad Boujellal’s multi-national team of superstars. It remains the closest Clermont have come to the biggest prize in Europe and Hines is still hurting.

“It was really hard for me being so close to winning another one [Euorpean Cup] having done that with Leinster and knowing how big an achievement that was. Had I not won already I wouldn’t have known what it meant, so it was tough at Clermont to come that close again and not get there.

“In the final against Toulon with Clermont we were dominating the game and then we made a little bit of a strategic error, we should have kicked instead of played, turned the ball over and they scored and we couldn’t get back. It doesn’t take much at all. They’re hard lessons to learn… you don’t get those chances back.”

With Munster and Leinster both contesting the semi-final stages of Europe, it seems that Irish rugby is several steps ahead of the game in Scotland. They beat New Zealand last November and, while they lost this year at Murrayfield in the Six Nations, few pundits, Warren Gatland included, would rate the Scots above their Celtic cousins. Are there lessons to be learned from the Emerald Isle?

“Their schools system is really strong, their feeder system,” replies Hines. “They have Gaelic [Games] to compete with, rugby probably is the sport of the country, the numer one sport and that’s how they have more players coming in to choose from. They are organised and know where their players are coming from, they can tap into that the whole time. They’ve just got more players.”

Which is what Glasgow needs?

“They do. The younger players that are coming in and playing for Glasgow, they’ve had to play this year and that’s a good thing, but the good thing for them is just to have that reliability, knowing the players are coming in behind and they can plan.”

Hines urges all fans to get themselves down to the European Finals at Murrayfield on 12 and 13 May because “anyone who comes and watches the two games… they’re going to have a great time”.

Those same fans streaming into the stadium might pass a large Australian lock on the way out of Murrayfield because Hines is joining Vern Cotter’s team in Montpellier next season. Might we see him retun to the capital at some point in the future, possibly even as Scotland coach?

“I would still be privileged to be part of the Scotland team again,” Hines replies. “You never know, do you? We’ll see. But yeah, I’d love to come back. For 20 years, pretty much, the Scotland team has been part of my life.”