Cup of Cheer

Leicester’s Scott Hamilton is after a rare double of Super 14 and Heineken Cup medals in consecutive years. He compared rugby in both hemispheres with Edward Newman

LEICESTER Tigers pride themselves on rarely, if ever, getting a signing wrong. And they’ve always been careful in choosing who they bring from the southern hemisphere.

Take this triumvirate of players likely to feature on their starting XV in tomorrow’s Heineken Cup Final against Leinster: scrum-half Julien Dupuy has illuminated both the Premiership and Heineken Cup but came from a Biarritz squad where he spent most of the time deputising for Dimitri Yachvili. Craig Newby, formerly of the Otago Highlanders, is a quality No 6 but struggled to make the ultimate breakthrough with the All Blacks, while Scott Hamilton is another player who was unlucky to be around at the same time as so many talented New Zealand wingers.

The Tigers recruitment policy differs in so many ways to the reckless spending of the likes of Toulon or Stade Francais.

Leicester never splash the cash on some marquee name; instead they make their pitch for team players devoid of ego, those who might fit into their team environment. They also seem to go for those with a chip on their shoulders; many of their overseas signings look like players out to prove a point. Scott Hamilton could be described as one of rugby’s great underdog stories. Born in Christchurch and rugby-educated at the famous Christchurch Boys High School, he struggled to make the first XV, instead playing for the third team.

It may sound like the stock answer to a question about his rise through the ranks of the Canterbury NPC side in 2002 and then the Crusaders a year later, but when he simply cites “hard work” and “sacrifice” it seems a genuine response.

Big enough to play in the back row but a full-back/winger, Hamilton scores plenty tries, has a good turn of pace, is strong under the high ball and possesses a good boot. His longevity at Robbie Deans’ Crusaders was down to the fact that he was a key cog in their counter-attacking game.

That he eventually became an All Black, having never represented New Zealand through the different age grades, is in itself a remarkable achievement. After school he pitched up at Glenmark, a club which prides itself on having produced All Blacks. Recognition duly arrived at provincial level and subsequently at the Crusaders franchise.

At a time when New Zealand was flush with brilliant wingers and fullbacks, Hamilton had to be satisfied with two All Black caps in 2006, and when Leicester came knocking last summer, it didn’t take too long for the 28-year-old to make up his mind.

“I had a couple of Tests but there were some good outside backs coming through,” says Hamilton. “I felt if I was going to come over here and get a decent contract, get paid well enough to make the decision to come worthwhile, as well as attract top teams to want me, I had to accept that my international days would end – even though I was playing well.

“I didn’t want to leave it too late before trying Europe. Obviously you can’t play for New Zealand but if you look there are some very good guys playing in this competition that could easily make the All Blacks and they’ve made the same decision.

“There’s a multitude of reasons. For example, being an All Black, you spend so much time away from home, it’s tough for guys with families and that’s why a lot end up coming over.”

The move to the English midlands was made that bit easier by the presence of Newby, and another Crusader in Aaron Mauger, and Hamilton was glad to find an environment similar to that in Christchurch.

“I find the Tigers and Crusaders share similar traits. I’ve said that to the boys back home – it is a Crusader vibe that we’ve had here now in the last couple of months.

“Another thing I notice is that because Leicester has been successful, a lot of people hate Leicester – it’s similar back home.

“There’s nothing worse either than being in a team where people are bitching and moaning, and having a go at you when you do something wrong. It happens in some clubs, but not here. I think that’s why it is a similar environment. The success of Leicester and the Crusaders speak for themselves as well.”

Both Crusaders and Leicester are masters at collecting silverware at the business end of the season. Hamilton’s All Black-laden Crusaders sides, which featured Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, won Super titles in 2005, ‘06 and ‘08 and with Leicester he made sure he was arriving a club that had winning culture.

“I envisaged being in finals like this when I chose Leicester. And I saw that when I got here.

“I certainly didn’t want to go to a side that was going to be struggling – I would have found that pretty difficult to get my head around.”

Regarding Crusaders’ late surge for a top four place in this season’s Super 14, and the Tigers’ remarkable run of results in the last couple of months under Richard Cockerill, Hamilton adds: “You don’t need to be doing everything right all of the time right throughout the season to be able to get where we are now. This is the business end of the season when trophies are there to be won.”

After a full season down under, Hamilton came straight into the northern hemisphere season. The climate made life difficult at first, and he found the game more stop-start in comparison to the free-flowing but ELV-ridden game in the southern hemisphere.

“When I got here I didn’t find the game more vibrant. The rules were different. We had been playing with the free kick rules, so the ball had been in play a lot longer.

“All the fitness that I had built up was not really required here either. It was a lot more stop-start, more scrums and I didn’t need the level of fitness I did back home.

“Once the weather got better it became a lot more enjoyable for me personally. It’s difficult to compare especially because of the rules. I don’t know how the All Blacks do it – they had to play under three different sets of rules last year.

“The Heineken Cup is obviously a great brand, and it’s awesome to be a part of. When we went to Cardiff, the environment and the atmosphere there was just nothing I had experienced before. Walking around the hotel, seeing all the fans out and about the day of the game was something I hadn’t really experienced before.

“Looking out the window on the bus on the way to the stadium sent a shiver down my spine, and when you’re running out just seeing all the fans that made the trip – even though I’ve only been here six months – makes me proud to play for Leicester.”

He admires Leinster’s teamwork and he’s looking forward to facing Isa Nacewa, a face familiar on the NPC and Super 14 circuit. He is also out to emulate Australian Rod Kafer by winning a Super Rugby and Heineken Cup medal in consecutive years (Kafer was a Super 12 winner with ACT Brumbies in 2001 and a Heineken Cup champion with Leicester in 2002). Hamilton won the Super 14 crown last May.

“To get all four in 12 months would be decent haul. It’s a goal of mine, but just winning the Heineken Cup would be something special.

“I watched the semi-final live between Munster and Leinster. Leinster won it as underdogs. They have some smart footballers, and they’ll be different to London Irish who rely more on individual brilliance. Leinster have got good individual talent, but they’re a very good team as well. To beat Munster like they did is an outstanding achievement.”

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