EXPERIENCE is the one key factor that Nathan Hines believes could carry Clermont Auvergne to their first and his second Heineken Cup final triumph in Dublin tomorrow.
But then again, he warns, it’s always important to watch out for those young upstarts who have no experience, and are scared of nothing.
That is Hines. The likeable Australian-born Scotland forward may have seen it all in a career that stretches from a Scottish Cup win with Gala in 1999 to five Heineken Cup semi-final in the last five years. In 14 years, his career has yielded 77 Scotland caps, a British and Irish Lions tour and European success with four clubs, but he still takes nothing for granted.
Preparing to face Toulon at the Aviva Stadium, Hines now in his second season with Clermont, talks candidly about his hopes for success and his wariness of Toulon’s League of Nations stars.
“Experience is a big thing,” he insists, “and I’ve learned a lot but, more importantly, this Clermont team have learned a lot from the highs and lows of the past few seasons.
“As an individual, you learn through big games to shut out things that don’t matter, that there’s no point in being nervous about things you can’t control, and just to focus on the game like you do any other, and that’s what I’ve done this week.
“For the team it’s the same, in the sense that most of this squad have now been through some good times and suffered the horrible feelings of losing out on the big stage. That all helps now because, as a professional, you become more comfortable the more experience you have, good or bad.
“But you have guys like Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Chris Masoe in the Toulon line-up, and they’re not exactly going to come out and start tickling you in a ruck are they?”
Hines’ time at Leinster has made him familiar with tomorrow’s venue, the Aviva Stadium.
“I feel really comfortable at the Aviva, but obviously, that doesn’t mean we won’t have to work really hard to win,” he said.
“Playing against Toulon, it’s all about pressure. They have strong forwards and power-runners, so there’s danger pretty much everywhere. If we can cope with the pressure, stay out of our own half and keep them in theirs, then like in any rugby game, you’re on your way to making it easier for yourself.
“Jonny Wilkinson is another who certainly has experience. Jonny finishes what his team creates, so it goes without saying that discipline will be incredibly important.
“But, having said all that about experience, you can also look at the younger players, and we have a few brilliant kids, who you feel don’t sense the enormity of a game like this, because they’re playing at this level for the first time. They’ve maybe only won big games so far and so they believe that they’ll always win, and don’t realise yet that it’s actually a privilege to be in this position. They can be dangerous because they don’t know they can lose yet, and so are not weighed down by any fears.”
Of incredible credit to the big forward, born in Wagga Wagga, Hines has started in seven of Clermont’s eight tournament games so far this season – they are bidding to become the first club to win all nine games in Europe – and, if the Auvergne club manage to clinch a first Heineken Cup title, he’ll become only the fifth player in history after Philippe Carbonneau (Toulouse and Brive), Cedric Heymans (Brive and Toulouse), Federico Mendez (Bath and Northampton) and Eoin Reddan (Wasps and Leinster) to win the trophy with different clubs.
In the colours of Leinster in 2011, Hines took to ten the number of Scots to have won the Heineken Cup. Andy Nicol and David Hilton – then considered Scottish – were the pioneers with Bath in 1998, the Northampton sextet of Craig Moir, Mattie Stewart, Budge Pountney, Richard Metcalfe and Scotland A caps Don MacKinnon and Simon Holmes followed in 2000, scrum-half Mark McMillan came off the bench in Wasps’ 2007 victory and Hines reached the summit with Leinster in a stunning comeback and 33-22 win over Northampton at the Millennium Stadium two years ago.
Now 36, and juggling training with looking after four-year-old Josh, and caring for wife Leann, now close to giving birth to different sex twins, Hines seems as relaxed as Supernanny. Beating Leinster home and away this term secured revenge for the Frenchmen and their semi-final win over Munster took his team into new territory so, in terms of his rugby, he is eager but far from expectant.
“I’m not worried, mate. Maybe it’s the experience thing, the benefit of being 36! I have viewed this week as a normal week really.
“I have always been pretty laid back. I remember my first game for Scotland against New Zealand and John Rutherford [then backs coach] said to me, ‘don’t worry about when you get on, or the fact that you’re playing the All Blacks. . .’ and I said ‘I’m not worried about who it is’. It could be All Blacks, Gala YM or Toulon.
“I’m excited and can’t wait for the game, but I don’t feel under any extra pressure than normal. It has been an objective of the club to win the French Championship and to win the Heineken Cup but what people are saying about who’s favourites doesn’t matter.
“There’s a strong belief that we’ll win. We’ve got the team on paper but then so have Toulon. It’s about how we all play, how we all cope, experienced or not, with the physical pressure. That’s rugby. It doesn’t change.”