Nathan Hines: No easy games in World Cup group

Nathan Hines has been charged with plugging the holes in the Scotland defence. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Nathan Hines has been charged with plugging the holes in the Scotland defence. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
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FOLLOWING the furore of John Hardie being selected for the World Cup barely a month after he arrived in the country, it is interesting to note that another foreign import never faced anything like the same maelstrom, but then again Nathan Hines did things a little differently back in the day. Backpacking around Europe, he stopped off at Gala for a season and ended up earning 77 Scotland caps, a trip to South Africa with the Lions in 2009 and won the European Cup with Leinster.

Hines played under Scotland coach Vern Cotter at Clermont and the Kiwi drafted the big Aussie into his management set-up in May of this year. He had only recently retired from rugby with Sale Sharks at the end of last season. Some might argue that he is a little too close to the current players, many of whom he can count as friends, but Hines counters that that relationship may actually prove beneficial in his current capacity.

“I think the boys are a little bit more comfortable coming to me and asking stuff, maybe because I’m not as stern as big Vern,” he says with a smile. “Because I’ve only recently stopped playing, they feel they can relate to me I think. They might not see me as a coach yet. It’s a little bit different.

“Say I give a presentation on lineout D, if you’re a player, doing and saying exactly the same thing, the players will tell you in the meeting that they think it’s rubbish. But as a coach, they listen to you, walk out of the room and say to each other ‘I think that was rubbish’, and you won’t find out.

“At the moment, they’re still telling me, which is good. Not that they’ve been telling me it’s rubbish, but because that’s how I want it to be; that they think I’m approachable. It needs to be a two-way street. You can’t get the most out of them if they don’t trust you or feel comfortable with the way you are.”

In his own laconic way Hines is a perfect foil for “Stern” Vern, pictured right. He’s a laid-back character, popular and gently mocking, especially of journalists, although he does it in such a good-natured way that it is impossible to take offence. Asked about the press conference just finished and Hines insists that our dull questions had sent him to sleep. When quizzed about what the players will do for light relief during the World Cup he shovels on the sarcasm: “We give them media duties to wind down.”

But he is not there as the joker in the Scotland pack. Instead Hines has been entrusted with mending Scotland’s Achilles heel, welding the gaping hole in their defences, this team’s inability to stop a driving maul. It’s a potent weapon in the right hands and for some reason the big men in blue have been about as effective as King Canute in turning back the opposition tide.

Scotland conceded two maul tries to Italy in the Six Nations, one to Ireland in Dublin just last month and it would have been two had the blue shirts not coughed up a penalty, which will come with a yellow card attached during the World Cup. Even in last Saturday’s kybosh at BT Murrayfield the Italian maul still did some damage, winning a penalty immediately before the visitors scored their only try.

The Italy re-match was “a small step forward” according to Hines, and he insists that there is work to do, but if the Aussie can plug the gap in the coming World Cup he will have proved his worth to the world. And while everyone is focused on South Africa and Samoa, Hines talks up the danger of Scotland’s other Pool B opponents.

“Japan have been playing a lot of games,” he says, pointing out they recently beat Uruguay 40-0. “They play a lot of games. The USA play a lot of games so there are plenty of things for us to look at.

“It’s not like in days gone by when you say, ‘oh yeah, it’s easy’, because it’s not. So it’s going to be tough. That’s what we are doing, we are preparing, and once this game [last night’s match in France] is over it will be a relief because it’s the World Cup because obviously that’s what we are aiming for. Japan is not easy.”

Anything could happen in the World Cup but if the seeding pans out then Scotland’s final pool match against Samoa should determine which team makes a quarter-final appearance and which one heads home. It begs an important question.

Eight years ago at the 2007 World Cup, Frank Hadden played a sub-strength side against the All Blacks, and was roundly abused for it, just one week before beating Italy by a whisker in St Etienne. Will the current coaches do something similar when Scotland face the muscular Springboks one week before they play Samoa?

“We don’t want to lose games,” insists Hines. “Frank never said he put out his second team. There is a little bit of game management as well in the way you prepare, you look at the tournament as a whole. We have yet to have that discussion, how are we going to play it?

“The thing is I don’t want to go and play South Africa and lose by 50. What’s the use in that? Everyone wants to compete. Personally, if I was playing I’d want to win so I don’t think that anyone we put in that team will want to be saying, ‘well, we’re just here to make up the numbers’. I don’t think that’s the way we are going to approach it but, honestly, we haven’t really made up our minds yet how we are going to play it.”

That decision will ultimately fall to Cotter, who coached Hines for three years at Clermont. The big Aussie probably knows the Kiwi as well as anyone else in the management team so what exactly, Hines is put on the spot, makes Vern Vern?

“He asks questions of you all the time, keeps you on your toes,” comes the Aussie’s answer. “He’s honest with you and asks you to be honest with yourself. If you’re not doing it right, he’ll tell you. He’ll also chuck a couple of curve balls in during training, saying ‘let’s try this and see how everyone adapts’. That’s good, you don’t want it scripted or for people to get comfortable with where they are and what they’re doing.

“He’s a humble kind of guy, just does his business, and I think that’s why he’s fitted in with the Scottish team and Scottish people.”

He’s not the first foreign import to do so, as one out-sized Australian continues to prove.