Three players have Heineken Cup wins with two clubs and ex-Scotland lock could join them, writes Iain Morrison
Should Nathan Hines inspire Clermont Auvergne to victory in their semi-final against Leinster in Bordeaux today and go on to win the Heineken Cup, the former Scotland lock will join an exclusive group that makes Edinburgh’s New Club look like Butlins. Only three players have lifted the European trophy with more than one club – Philippe Carbonneau and Cedric Heymans both did the double with Brive and Toulouse while Argentine hooker Federico Mendez lifted the Heineken Cup whilst sporting Bath and Northampton colours. Hines has a fighting chance of becoming the fourth player to join that exclusive European club but first, and almost inevitably, he must plot a route past his former team.
His move from defending champions Leinster to Clermont in the summer surprised many, including Hines himself, since neither the player nor the club wanted the transfer which may yet come back to bite the Dubliners. The French giants have never before contested a semi-final and the fact that they will finally do so this afternoon is thanks, at least in part, to the hefty influence of Hines. Should Clermont prevail, angry Leinster’s fans might just be tempted to throw a brick or two through the Dublin offices of the IRFU when they arrive back home.
In an effort to control the number of foreign players in the Irish provinces, the union tweaked their internal guidelines last summer and Leinster had no choice but to show Hines the door.
“You have to apply for a place to the union,” said Hines. “It went to the committee and they didn’t OK it so that was it. The club wanted me to stay and I wanted to stay.”
Some clubs seem to be tied together in Europe – Munster and Northampton, Edinburgh and Toulouse, Bath and Glasgow and now Leinster and Clermont. They appear to clash every time you turn on the TV.
Leinster and Clermont contested one of the great Heineken Cup matches just last season. The Frenchmen bossed the pool match at Dublin’s RDS Showground but lost by one miserable point – largely down to stand-off Brock James. The Australian playmaker still gets cold sweats about it. Usually the safest of kickers, James endured such a miserable day in front of goal that he would probably have missed the ground after falling over. He fluffed five penalties and three drop goals in total while, on the other side of the fence, Johnny Sexton kicked seven from eight. Hines remembers the match well, not least because he finished on the winning side. “He probably hasn’t had a day like it since then,” he said of his fellow Australian with some sympathy. “I got bashed up quite a bit on the day. I just remember being taken aback by the power of their forward pack and that’s not a mistake that Leinster are going to make again.
“In France you have to have a pretty solid pack and that helps in Europe. It’s not the be all and end all but, if you put pressure on the opposition, then you can win games. That’s what we aim to do, put pressure on teams and it just happens that we have a pretty effective pack. Our backs too pick good lines and make good breaks.”
Alongside another veteran in Canadian lock Jamie Cudmore, Hines provides much of Clermont’s heavy lifting capacity in the Top 14, a league that is as physically demanding as any in world rugby. Neither man is a stranger to controversy, having been involved in so many scrapes that they probably exchange Christmas cards with the ERC disciplinary officers.
If Leinster want a taste of the skulduggery they will be up against this afternoon they need look no further than the pool match between Clermont and Ulster in France. With the visitors on the attack, Clermont were defending a four-point lead just five metres from their line when Hines appeared to be overcome with fatigue. Instead of taking his place in the defensive line the big man lay down and appeared disinclined to move. He had one Ulsterman by the foot, another by the arm and was lying on top of one, possibly two other white shirts, none of whom could do anything except complain vociferously to the match officials.
The touch judge eventually flagged the infringement but the job was done. The visitors needed five rather than three points and Hines ensured they weren’t going to get them. It may not have been pretty (or ethical) but it does show what Scotland are missing after Hines announced his Test retirement following the World Cup exit.
The big Aussie is already a Clermont favourite and you can see why. Les Jaunards are the most physical of sides. They play route one rugby and do so relentlessly until something gives and, when it does, they have Aurelien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana and Julien Malzieu in the backs to take advantage of any cracks the forwards have opened up in the opposition defence.
Just as important as their physical strength is this club’s mental determination. This is a side which lost ten consecutive league finals before finally triumphing in 2010, so they have learned important lessons about closing out matches during the dark days.
In the quarter-final against Saracens, the match was already decided in Clermont’s favour but Sarries were hammering away at the try line, searching for a consolation score at the death. Clermont refused to give it to them. They didn’t give an inch, they simply closed the door, even with the result in absolutely no doubt. It was impressive stuff and suggests that even two-time champions Leinster will need to be at their best this afternoon.
Hines insists that the two clubs are very similar, and so they should be since Leinster coach Joe Schmidt was recruited from Clermont, and both clubs are still fighting on two fronts. Leinster top the RaboDirect and Clermont lie second (equal on points with Toulouse) in the Top 14. So, are they targeting the Heineken Cup or the Top 14?
“We treat them the same, we want to win every game,” says Hines ominously. “On Sunday we’ll focus on the HC and next weekend we have a match against Castres so we’ll focus then on the Top 14.”
Having already won the Top 14 with Perpignan back in 2009, Scotland’s favourite Australian could win both the Heineken Cup and France’s Top 14 with two different clubs.
If he does, Hines would join an exclusive club with exactly one member.