Going to be tough for Leinster, in Hines' sight


HEINEKEN CUP SEMI-FINALS FOCUS ON CLERMONT AUVERGNE: GERRY THORNLEYgets the  view of Clermont’s experienced secondow and, of course, a former Leinster player, Nathan Hines

DEEP DOWN, before the semi-final draw was even made, Joe Schmidt always felt he would run into his former Clermont employers and likewise Nathan Hines sensed it would be his erstwhile team-mates at Leinster. And, sure enough, so it has come to pass.

To win the best tournament in Europe you invariably have to beat the best.

“If we wanted to go far in Europe we knew one time or another we would have to cross paths,” reasons Hines.

Schmidt reckons Hines has more on him than vice versa, a notion that makes Hines laugh and also prompts him to repeat Schmidt’s line that: “I could never remember the lineout calls when I was there, let alone a year later! To be fair, him and Vern (Cotter) spent a lot of time together and they will try to out-fox each other. It just comes down to the day, doesn’t it?”

The Australian from Wagga Wagga who played 77 times for Scotland is likely to be directly opposed by the All Blacks World Cup winner who has also played league for Australia, Brad Thorn.

With the latter likely to pack down alongside Leo Cullen and Hines partnered by the abrasive Canadian Jamie Cudmore (sparring partner of Paul O’Connell amongst many, many others) the combined age of Leinster’s secondrow would be 71, with Clermont’s a sprightly 68.

Verily, the respective engine rooms will not be a place for shrinking violets, more for grizzled and gnarled veterans prepared to get down and dirty.

“I was talking to Leo and we were saying that Brad is the oldest man in world rugby but then we reckoned Simon Shaw is the oldest man in world rugby,” said Hines yesterday. What is it about secondrows?

“I think because we never had any pace to lose in the first place we play at the same speed whether we’re 20 or 40,” he laughs.

And they pick up a few things along the way.

“That’s the thing. You’re more experienced and you’re a little bit wiser with what’s going on and what you need to do. I think that’s a part of it.”

Life in the Auvergne is treating Hines well since he left Leinster a little reluctantly on foot of the IRFU’s reluctance to sanction a new contract.

“We’re playing good rugby. We’re nearly top of the League and in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, so I can’t complain at all.

“The reason why you want to play rugby is to win stuff. I’m having a good time and it just remains to win stuff.”

Hines spent four years with Perpignan before joining Leinster for a couple of seasons, but he describes Clermont as altogether different, much more professionally run as a club and a team, with facilities he describes as “awesome”.

“It was pretty much an easy transition for me because it was a lot like Leinster in the way the work was organised. It’s just run a little more efficiently than Perpignan.”

In this too he was helped by Clermont still having the mark of Schmidt, who spent four seasons there as assistant coach to Cotter before assuming the reins at Leinster last season.

“He’s a great coach,’ says Hines of Schmidt unequivocally.

“Everyone here has good things to say about him. You can’t really say anything bad about him and I wouldn’t either. Last year he led them (Leinster) to the European title. It’s pretty much the same team as last season and I think the teams are quite similar; effective forwards, a good backrow.

“On paper you’re looking at a 50-50 game.”

In Schmidt’s last season Clermont reached their Holy Grail of a first Bouclier de Brennus after nine losing finals and now, in their centenary season, they are chasing the double, although with that monkey off their backs, Clermont have prioritised conquering Europe for the first time.

Hines admits the Saracens quarter-final was targeted from weeks before, as has the semi-final, with Cotter describing last night’s game at home to Montpellier as the ideal preparation for the semi-final.

Hines and his family live in a hillside house overlooking Place de Jaude, in a city located amid the volcanic mountains of the Massif Central. Somewhat removed from the rest of the southern rugby belt in France, les jaunards and the Stade Marcel Michelin symbolise the region more than anything else, and they enjoy fervent support.

Perpignan’s Catalonian fans were, Hines says, a little more fanatical, whereas Clermont’s “love their team but are respectful of opponents as well. There was a line of 250 metres of people camping out from about 4am for semi-final tickets. So that’s the kind of fans we have here. They want to be a part of our success as much as we want to provide it for them.”

At their home ground they have won 41 games in succession, dating back over three years. “You don’t want to be part of the team that loses for the first time at home in three years,” he admits.

Perhaps in part because of his basketball playing days in his formative years, Hines remains one of the best offloading locks around and his team’s quotient of offloads invariably goes up when he is on the pitch. In a typically taut and tight knock-out game in the quarter-finals away to Saracens, it was Hines’ awareness and deft offload out of the tackle which enabled Morgan Parra to put Lee Byrne over for the game’s only try.

“It doesn’t happen that often but when it does it’s alright,” he says modestly.

Clermont appear to be hitting their straps at the right time of the season. “We were treading water during the Six Nations but we’ve been going well since then. Apart from the frontrow we’ve no real injuries and being top of the league means we can rotate a bit more, and we have a very strong squad.”

Last week’s 25-9 win over Stade Français was proof of this, the latter’s coach Michael Cheika (who brought Hines to Leinster in his last season there) noting, incredulously: “Mate, they played their second team! The only other guy who played in the Heineken Cup match was (Julien) Malzieu.” Ask him if they have any weaknesses and Cheika pauses and says: “Not really.”

“They’re super well-drilled and they really believe in what they’re doing and all the little details of their game,” Cheika told The Irish Times during the week. “You can see they’re a team that has been built over a good five or six years. They’ve had to endure hardship and they really believe in what they do no matter who’s playing and who they are playing.”

Cheika also cites their discipline as the difference between Clermont and all the other top 14 sides. “They’ve got skilful players in abundance but where they’re different, even from Toulouse, is they’re super disciplined in their identity and the way they play the game. Like, they all cheat. They all scrag, they all hold guys down, hold players in from the ruck; they know exactly who’s going to the ruck and when they do that they’re very decisive. It doesn’t take them a second to decide. They’re straight in and whatever decision they go with everyone follows in. They’re almost a mix of Anglo-Saxon and French rugby put together. They’ve got the best of both worlds.”

With their potent, bullying game and their depth, pace and strength out wide, Clermont can take a team on anywhere. “It’s easier said than done, but you’ve got to play a high defence against them and be right up in the playmaker’s eye-line. You’ve got to stop their go forward, and their rumble, because they can rumble with their forwards if they have to, so you’ve got to bully the bully. If you can stop that they turn more to their kicking game, but they have many options and they’re very good on the ground. If there’s one little weakness it’s maybe their lineout though not as much when (Julien) Bonnaire is playing.”

A signal of intent is usually whether they pick David Skrela or Brock James at outhalf. “If Skrela plays it’s a little bit tighter, if James plays it’s a little bit wider,” says Cheika, who believes that they’ll start Skrela, given James’ dose of the yips in the quarter-final defeat at the RDS two seasons ago. That said, opting for Skrela from the start against Saracens, Clermont remained highly pragmatic even when he was replaced early on by James.

The cocky Parra is another key man and, in this particular match, Cheika reckons Hines will be too. “He’s been a really good buy for them. He’s got a bit of smarts about him and he knows Leinster so well. I think he’s going to be a really important player in this match for some reason. I don’t know why. It’s not often a secondrow, but I have a feeling it could be this time.”

As for taking on Clermont in the Marcel Michelin, “It’s like they’ve got 20 guys on the field. And it’s normal (that) every decision goes against you. You’ve always got 15,000 people packed into the stadium and I think that’s going to be a big advantage for Leinster playing in Bordeaux. It’s not where Clermont would ideally have wanted to play.

“Their first preference would have been St Etienne and then Lyon after that but both stadiums are having work done to them, so this is a third or fourth choice for them and it (Stade Chaban- Delmas) is not as concentrated, cauldron-like atmosphere as it would have been in Clermont or in St Etienne.”

Cheika was struck by how much the talk in Clermont last week was still about the Saracens quarter-final and believes that while he describes Clermont as a more mature side than the Leinster team he took to the semi-finals six seasons ago, Leinster’s experience of big Heineken Cup days – this is Clermont’s first semi-final, whereas it’s Leinster’s fourth in a row – will count for something.

He is travelling to Bordeaux on the day as a Leinster fan, along with his assistant coach Mario Ledesma, who as an ex-Clermont hooker, will be cheering for the opposition. “There not many games I get excited about as a spectator, but this is one that is definitely worth going to.”

He couldn’t call the re-scheduled France-Ireland game, and it was a draw.

So this one? “I have to go for Leinster. I can’t go for anyone else, mate, can I? Not if it’s going to be published in the paper. No, I do think they’ll win. It’s their experience at this end of the competition. But it will be so close. It’s going to go to the wire.”