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'I played rugby a year ago, I couldn't walk for three weeks after'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Nathan Hines will be glued to the TV this Saturday in Manchester, watching from afar as his old club Leinster goes in search of its fifth European star. It’s eleven years since the Australian was at the heart of their glittering second success, even scoring the only try of his two-year stay in Ireland in that riveting second half when a team coached by Joe Schmidt came from 6-22 down at the break to Northampton to gallop to a razzle-dazzle 33-22 triumph. 

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He doesn’t have to stray too far to realise the passage of time since then. “My kids saw that game on YouTube and my eldest is the only one that remembers me playing and I have a photo with the cup in front of the bus after we won it,” explained Hines to RugbyPass. “Josh is 13 now (he’s already 6ft 2 and poised to start playing rugby again next season) but the nine-year-old is like, ‘Is that you playing?’”

It sure was. “The medal is in my closet and my Leinster jersey and the Northampton jersey, I gave it to a friend who has a factory making perspex. I said, ‘Can you frame these for me?’ He said, ‘I’ve got a better idea, I’ll put it into a table, put the Leinster and Northampton jerseys together in a coffee table’. That is in the garage, there is nowhere (in the house) to put it at the moment.”

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Hines enjoyed a 16-season career in Europe, starting out at Edinburgh, finishing at Sale and taking in pit-stops at Perpignan, Leinster and Clermont along the way. His time in Ireland was particularly special even if it ended frustratingly, the IRFU curbing attempts by Leinster to extend his two-year deal for fear that it would deny the likes of Devin Toner the opportunity to accelerate their development. 

It was terribly politicking by the Irish powers that be – just months later, Leinster were recruiting Kiwi Brad Thorn on a short-term deal to fill the gaping hole left by Hines’ departure to France, but the club retains a special place in his affections. “I’m very excited,” he said about the upcoming final. 

Hines 2011 Leinster final
Nathan Hines, Isa Nacewa and Leo Cullen celebrate in 2011 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“I was in Dublin about a month ago and bumped into Jamie (Heaslip). I was supposed to meet up with Johnny Sexton but he is physiotherapy 24/7 to keep that old rig in check. I was only there one night and he was committed elsewhere, but I send a text every now and then to Leo (Cullen), the last maybe about four weeks ago, so I still keep in touch with some of the guys. 

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“It was a great two years for me and I wish I could have stayed on but it is professional rugby and that is what happens. But I’m really excited to see what they can do in Marseille, it’s a very exciting time coming up against La Rochelle who taught them a bit of a lesson the last time (in the 2021 semi-finals).”

Mention of Sexton, what does Hines, who retired from playing in May 2015 just six months before his 39th birthday, make of the soon-to-be 37-year-old Leinster out-half who is contracted through to the 2023 World Cup finals? He will be 38 by that stage, just like Hines when the curtain fell on his career.

“Johnny is one of the most competitive people I have ever met. We’re good mates and when we played against each other the abuse he’d give me, saying all kinds of nasty things, but he is a great bloke. He challenges himself more than anyone else I imagine so that is why he can be a bit niggly, he just wants everyone to be the best as much as he expects himself to be the best. That is the drive that he has, he just wants to do as good as he can for as long as he can.”

Tell us more about the nasty verbals? “He said I was trodding on his ankle, in a different way. It’s basically the stuff that happens during a game. It was a game where we beat them and he was annoyed that we beat them in the Aviva when I was playing for Clermont. It took him a bit of time to calm down but we patched it up.” 

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These days, Sexton is part of a squad that feels like it has a cast of reliable thousands given the level of depth that now exists at Leinster. “They knew what they were doing when I was there but they just do it better now,” explained Hines. “They have got ball-playing skills, they are all rugby players, they are not forwards. They can all pass, their ruck speed is ridiculous and they have all had a lot of experience. 

“The most impressive thing is just the amount of players they have got that can play in the first team. Their production line, that continuity they have got is ridiculous and when anyone gets injured they can just slot in. They know their role and they have got utter faith and confidence in whoever is in the side. That isn’t something that comes quickly, it is something built and that is where the difference is – they are just so effective around everything they do and they don’t need any grunt. They are still quite powerful but they have got other strings to their bow now.” 

It’s only recently looking back on his time at Leinster that Hines can appreciate the signs that existed that Leo Cullen, their trophy-winning skipper, had what it took to go on and become such a successful coach at the province. “If I was a coach now and I had Leo in my team you could just put your faith in him, ‘Right Leo, what do we need this week, what do you see? I see this’. You would pretty much let the team not run itself but have full responsibility for what it does. 

“As a coach, you can’t be making decisions all the time for players so if you can have someone like Leo there, you can have a lot of confidence that everyone is on the same boat and everyone can make decisions on the field, take responsibility on the field. At the time I kind of thought it but looking back now, you can certainly see Leo was never going to go into any other role but to coach.”

Hines followed Cullen down the coaching route but his adventure came to an awkward halt in 2020, the former second-rower surplus to requirement at Montpellier after initially learning the ropes under Vern Cotter with Scotland, the country he represented on 77 occasions as a player. “It actually did put me off for a bit to be fair, the last year,” he said about his appetite for coaching being harmed by his experience in France. 

“The first two years were quite tough not because they were bad experiences but working with Vern and running pretty much an international programme for 47 weeks of the year, it’s tough. It was tough in a good way and then the third year, when they brought in Xavier Garbajosa, was not my best experience

“The first year we got to the final and we lost, the second year we had an awful losing start to the year which crescendoed when we played Perpignan at home, who hadn’t won a game all year and had come up from Pro D2 and we lost to them. The president got itchy feet, thought things were going sideways, engaged with Xavier, got too far down the road with signing him and in the meantime we came back and won ten from twelve games and got into the playoffs by which time you can’t go back on getting a new coach. 

“So Xavier brought in another forwards coach with him and Ian Vass left in November (2019) to go to Northampton so it was just me left, I was the only non-French coach so I wouldn’t get invited to selection meetings or to talks about training, all kinds of stuff. That put me off. I left and then he [Garbajosa] got moved on the year after.”

Montpellier are looking alright these days, leading the way in the Top 14 under Philippe Saint-Andre with the end-of-season playoffs beckoning. Hines, too, is enjoying a welcome level of stability in what he is doing now for a living. He and his family exited France amid the pandemic without a job lined up but the European network built up over the previous two decades soon paid dividends.  

“Covid came around, there weren’t too many jobs flying around, we moved back to the UK and I didn’t know what I was going to do, I didn’t know whether I was going to continue coaching and then Hugh Vyvyan contacted me and said, ‘Look, I’m thinking about moving on to a different role within Gallagher, would you come in and talk to my boss and see if you fancy to put your name in for this role?’”

That was November 2020 and Hines has since revelled in his business development director role. Working in the insurance sector was all new to him but with Gallagher invested in rugby through its sponsorship of the Premiership and various grassroots initiatives, his history in the game as a Test player and a coach smoothed the way for him to quickly settle in.  

Hines Gallagher
Nathan Hines pictured recently at Twickenham with the Gallagher Premiership trophy

“This job provides more stability than I had travelling around Europe for 20 years as a player and a coach and the kids like the stability, staying in one place for more than two or three years. It’s perfect for me because when I started I knew next to nothing about insurance, but Gallagher were looking for someone who knew a little bit about rugby and they got me involved.

“Sometimes our clients are professional rugby clubs as well and I could speak to them, they could talk to me as if I wasn’t their broker. They could talk to me friendly and openly and that is part of the thing that makes Gallagher slightly different, but the thing that really appealed to me was that I could stay within rugby and talk to people in grassroots and elite rugby. Gallagher understood that there were some skills I brought with me from rugby that other people don’t have, so they were patient with me when I had to learn how to integrate into corporate life.”

The grassroots connection especially appeals. “When I was playing international the best part, apart from playing, was rolling into Murrayfield in the bus and you’d see a little kid with their dad or their mum and they would wave at the bus and you waved back. They’d be so happy and they would remember that pretty much for the rest of their lives, that one of the Scotland players waved to them from the bus. 

“That was the only contact I would have had but now when I go out to local rugby clubs, whether it is with Gallagher or at my local rugby club, I can go with the cup, do a Q&A and pass on the knowledge that I have of rugby to them other than just wave to them on a bus. That’s good. Obviously, we are involved in the elite part of the game with the partnership with Premiership Rugby but it also gives me the opportunity to go out and help nine, ten, eleven-year-olds and younger to learn about the game really.”

That connection will reach new heights next month when Hines, along with fellow ex-players such as Jack Clifford, Will Johnson, Rob Vickers, Charlie Sharples, Jonny Arr and Will Hurrell, will take on the Road to Twickenham, a seven-day 750-mile cross-country charity cycle challenge that begins in Newcastle and ends at The Stoop, just across the road from English Rugby HQ in time for the 2021/22 Premiership final

“I can still run in a straight line, I still go to the gym, but I played rugby a year ago and I played alright, I just couldn’t walk for three weeks after,” said the 45-year-old about how his fitness levels rate seven years after his retirement as a professional player. “It was a vets tens charity game. My wife is extremely happy that I have come to the realisation by myself that I can no longer recover from rugby. 

“The cycling is a little more gentle on my body. With work, I cover the country (Hines was in Jersey when talking with RugbyPass) but if I’m at home, I get up early to go training. Over Easter, there were four days where I cycled every day. It’s still going to be a massive challenge and that is what attracted me and everyone else to do the ride – we love challenges and missed having them when we exit playing.”

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