NATHAN HINES knows what happens when you take the challenge of Glasgow too lightly. This time last year he was sitting in teammate Chris Cusiter's front room in Perpignan with a whole crew of French guys who hooted and hollered as the Warriors' back division started running from their own 22 in Toulouse, against Toulouse. Against the side that even Perpignan, soon to be champions of France, know deep down are always the best in the country and the best in Europe, the two things being indivisible for French rugby men.
The laughs died on Gallic lips that January afternoon as the Evans brothers ripped the French bluebloods to shreds, Glasgow building up a 20-point lead before holding on to win 33-26 at the Stade Ernest Wallon. It was, said the Catalan boys who had seriously asked before the kick-off whether they really play le rugby in Glasgow, the biggest upset in Heineken Cup history. It was also the moment that Cusiter decided that he was coming back to Scotland and that he was joining Glasgow.
If Hines didn't accompany his compatriot back to Firhill – this was before he was forced to make the seismic choice between touring with the Lions or helping Perpignan win their first French Championship title for 40 years – then nor did he forget that day. On Friday, wearing the colours of European champions Leinster and playing in front of 18,000 Dubliners, he will face Glasgow for the first time since he left Edinburgh. This time, though, there won't be any element of surprise: Glasgow started the week top of the Magners League after their win against Edinburgh in the first leg of the 1872 Cup, and the Warriors are well-known to Leinster.
"The Leinster boys tell me that they always have a rough time against Glasgow," says Hines. "They're a really uncompromising, tough side. Thom and Max can turn it on from anywhere, and Parksy's kicking for position can pin you back if you're not careful. The lineout's good too, with Big Al (Kellock] running that. The big thing for us is getting enough clean ball to play with which will be difficult with the quality of their back row. The pack in general has a lot of international experience and Moray Low is a strong young guy who's really coming along, and they have lots of caps in every area. It's just starting to come through.
"When this Glasgow team first started taking shape most of the guys were quite young, but now they've got a lot of experience. And whereas before the experienced guys were throwbacks to the amateur era, now they're guys who've played their whole career in the pro game. Guys like Johnny Barclay and Richie Vernon, young guys like that."
"Young guys like that" might not include Big Al, who understudied Scott Murray when Hines cut his teeth at Edinburgh and has now developed into the lock's partner-in-crime in the Scotland boiler room, but it certainly covers other members of a hugely youthful Glasgow pack. One player in particular has piqued Hines' interest.
"I've seen Richie Gray play for the under-20s and have been keeping a close eye on him," says Hines. "He's going to be a really good player. He's one of these guys you don't see very often: tall, and strong and a big ox, as well as very athletic for a big guy. He's a great talent, but I'll be giving him plenty if he's picked – I've gotta do my job right..."
At this point he can't resist a chuckle, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out what part of young Richie's education Hines plans to take care of on Friday evening. It's a scenario, says Hines, that puts him in mind of a match back in Sydney, when he was a young whippersnapper who had just made the transition from League and was playing for Manly against the great Randwick side of the mid-Nineties. The man handing out the lessons that day was one who would unexpectedly come back into his life over a decade later.
"I hadn't met Checks (Leinster coach Michael Chieka] before I joined Leinster, but I remember playing against him once at the Manly Oval. It was my first season of rugby and there was this Randwick team that included David Knox, David Campese, Owen Finnigan, Warwick Waugh, Jason Jones-Hughes, Christian Warriner and Tony Daly. But Checks still stood out because he was completely uncompromising on the pitch and he's exactly the same way as a coach.
"Checks doesn't muck around, he tells you what he wants, has a shout now and again. That's one of the reasons why he gets so much out of players – he tells you exactly where he stands, exactly what he wants from you. As a rugby player that's half the battle. Most guys have more than one string to their bow and he tells you which one to pull out so the team can play the way he wants it to play."
Chieka has also grafted a relentless desperation to win onto a talented Leinster side which were traditionally disparaged as fancy dan Harlequin-style underachievers. The Aussie, says Hines, "instilled a culture that wouldn't accept second best, wouldn't overlook any detail in their preparation". The differences from Perpignan were apparent as soon as he arrived in Dublin, and Hines sums them up as succinctly as only he can: "Players here (at Leinster] are much more professional and work far harder than in France". The result? A Magners League title and winning the Heineken Cup at Murrayfield.
Chieka has, says Hines, shown the same ability as Andy Robinson at Edinburgh to foster a culture of winning. It's a thought that makes him momentarily wistful as he looks back at the pre-Robinson Edinburgh side that he played in, "a side which should have done something but never did". He runs through that pack – Jacobsen, Hall, Hewitt, Murray, Hines, Blackadder, Leslie and Taylor, with a choice of Hogg, Dickinson, Smith, Kellock and Strokosch on the bench – and then starts on the backs, with Mike Blair at scrum-half understudied by Rory Lawson, before thinking better of it. Hines isn't given to introspection and we're soon back in the present.
A lot of things about Leinster have impressed Hines. The huge crowds and the way Dublin gets behind its team, the work ethic, the sheer number of exciting young prospects such as flankers Sean O'Brien and Kevin McLaughlin, the way he was able to fit right in after spending the summer touring with Leinster's five Lions – Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Jamie Heaslip, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney.
But then you can imagine that Leinster have liked what they've seen too. The Irish sides have a well-deserved reputation for choosing their few non-Irish players very carefully, and Hines would have known that Rocky Elsom's size 13s would be hard to fill. Not that a man who shares his coach's uncompromising approach to his work would worry about such trifles. He does, however, take it as a badge of honour that Leinster don't just pick the player, but also select the man.
All told, things seem to be working out just fine for the big man from Wagga Wagga. In fact, he quickly revises that opinion: things are better than just fine, they're great. He turned 33 recently but is "really up for it; I haven't felt this good for a while and I'm playing better rugby than I was last year". Retirement is the furthest thought from his mind: he expects this will be his last club but doesn't expect this to be his last contract.
"I'm getting on a bit so this is an exciting time for me," he says. "I'm playing for the European champions and we're in the latter stages of the Heineken Cup and challenging for the Magners, while there's a really good atmosphere around the Scotland set-up. It's great for there to be a lot more positives than negatives. But best of all is the fact that I'm really enjoying my rugby – why wouldn't I be happy?"