Hines relishing 'huge occasion'
May 16, 2013
Nathan Hines has established himself as a key cog in Clermont's pack © Getty Images
For Clermont Auvergne's Nathan Hines, the build-up to Saturday's Heineken Cup final against Toulon will be like any other match. When he arrives at the Aviva Stadium, the first thing he will do is walk out on to the pitch and drink in the surroundings.
The pre-match warm-up will take place with the coaches putting the players through their usual routines. There will be nothing special laid out, no bells and whistles; it will be Clermont going through their paces as if they were at their Stade Marcel Michelin home or if they were away at Castres.
But this is no ordinary match for Les Jaunards. Hines knows all about Heineken Cup finals, he won one with Leinster in 2011, but for the rest of his team-mates bar two - David Skrela and Benjamin Kayser - this will be the first time they have gone for Europe's biggest prize.
Last season, Hines' old side Leinster signalled the end of Clermont's charge to the Heineken Cup in the last four. But this time around they buried those Dublin ghosts during the group stage and backed those impressive victories up with commanding wins over Montpellier and Munster in the knock-out stages. There is still the carrot of a Top 14 final on the horizon, with Clermont up against Castres in the semi-finals, but Hines' team are bored of being the also-rans.
"We've had a really good season," Hines told ESPN. "We said from the start we want to win both competitions and we have an opportunity on Saturday to get one. We have finally got in the right position, but we don't know if there'll be a happy ending. We've worked like donkeys all year, winning the pool stages and we know we can pull it out of the bag in the finals, but it'll be a huge occasion."
The 2010-11 season proved to be a watershed moment in Clermont's history. After years of trying, they finally had their mits on the Bouclier de Brennus. The town went mad, Aurelien Rougerie and the rest of his charges had deity status. But that win left the club wanting more; it did little to quench the thirst. Hines was turning out for Leinster when his team-mates charged to the Top 14 title, but he did experience their pair of semi-final defeats last term.
The expectation within Clermont is akin to your Real Madrid or Barcelona. The supporters expect success, a season which ends with no silverware will not be looked upon fondly. And the players are aware of this.
Their team has stars from one through to fifteen, but there is a wonderful personal touch to Clermont. The supporters greet the players like old friends when they wonder the streets with the team immersing themselves within the culture - Sitiveni Sivivatu's children are at the same school as Hines'. And then there is Hines' lock partner Jamie Cudmore. Hines has nothing but respect for Cudmore and the pair have formed a formidable second-row partnership.
"He lets me get on with it really," Hines explained. "Jamie's a much better player than he used to be, he knows he does not have to rely on wandering outside of the rules to impose himself and he has learnt a lot. I can't remember the last time he was carded and he brings a massive physical presence."
And Hines is anticipating attritional and closely fought match on Saturday. They are already well versed in Toulon's qualities having faced them twice this season in the Top 14 with Clermont winning 24-21 at home and drawing 26 apiece at the Stade Felix Mayol.
On the charge for the Lions in 2009 © Getty Images
"They've got quality players in every position," Hines said. "They have a physical presence and they will put pressure on you and you can bank on Jonny kicking the points. Their back-row is full of choice with Masoe, Rossouw or Steffon Armitage. They've got lots of options but it's a case of trying to deal with their physicality and the pressure."
Once the dust has settled on the match, Hines may catch up with Toulon prop Gethin Jenkins. The pair toured with the British & Irish Lions to South Africa in 2009 but Hines had to make a huge sacrifice to keep himself in contention - he left Perpignan before the season's end and missed out on their Top 14 title. Jenkins has declared himself fully available for the 2013 tour, meaning he will miss this year's final if Toulon reach it, but it seems Hines - despite bringing the experience of 77 caps for Scotland to the table - was never in Gatland's plans.
"I would have liked to have gone and I did as much as I could," Hines explains. "But that didn't seem to make the difference for the selectors. I must not have been in contention as Gatland phoned Wilkinson and Jenkins and if I was in the reckoning then maybe I would have heard, but I guess I wasn't there or thereabouts."
So with any thoughts of Lions put to one side, Hines is completely focused on finishing this campaign with silverware. Top 14 glory and another Heineken Cup medal are possible for Hines this term but they will not come easily. But despite the magnitude of what lies in wait for Clermont, expect Hines to go about his business in the same calm manner he has adopted since he first picked up a rugby ball.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.