Rugby Union: Hill rebuilding defences of fortress Kingsholm

For a former hero of Bath, Richard Hill has found himself surprisingly at home at rivals Gloucester. Chris Hewett met him
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The Independent Online
RICHARD HILL has spent the last two and a half years of his sporting life falling ever deeper in love with the rumbustious rugby city of Gloucester, which is remarkably forgiving of a man whose playing visits to Kingsholm invariably reduced him to the status of a human doormat on which eight gnarled and thoroughly nasty Cherry and White forwards would make a point of wiping their size 12s. Even now, the sheer ferocity of the place makes him wince. "Two local sides, Longlevens and Spartans, used our training ground for a cup semi-final the other day," he says. "I couldn't bring myself to watch it. Far too squeamish."

If he were being honest, he would agree that the parlous condition of Gloucester RFC circa October 1995 made him feel queasier still. Having spent his entire grown-up career as a wildly successful scrum-half with Bath and England, winning John Player Cups, Pilkington Cups, Courage league titles, Triple Crowns and Grand Slams by the baker's dozen, he suddenly found himself clutching the smellier end of the West country stick. Needless to say, the aroma was distinctly agricultural.

And in truth, Hill himself was partly to blame for Gloucester's bout of mid-decade depression. "I think you can trace their demise to the 1990 cup final, when Bath stuck the best part of 50 points on them," he acknowledges. "It was a fair old stuffing, one way and another, and I remember them being in bits after the game.

"The whole city had made the trip up, the sun was shining and they were having a whale of a time. Then the game started and it was curtains within minutes. The club took a rapid nosedive after that and spent the next few seasons shuffling around at the bottom."

Thirty tough months on, "Glaaasterrr" have left the bottom far behind, as it were; indeed, they would be challenging for a coveted place in the Heineken European Cup if Heineken Cup places were still a going concern. Their away form may alternate between the abject and the appaling - the Cherry and Whites tend to travel by team hearse rather than team bus - but Hill's resourceful, one-step-at-a-time brand of coaching has given them back their Kingsholm pride. As Newcastle, the Premiership title favourites, may well discover to their cost this afternoon, the famous old ground is once again an absolute pig of a venue for a visiting team when the heat is on.

Gloucester's one and only home defeat of the season was inflicted by Harlequins, of all people - "They were doing all this high fives business at the final whistle, which kind of stuck in the throat," recalls Hill - and recent gates have cruised past the 10,000 mark. They have a trophy, albeit the low-key Cheltenham and Gloucester Cup, tucked safely away in the sideboard and, rather more importantly, a set of decent threequarters to go with the traditional hairy-arsed pack. With the latest instalment of money from the owner Tom Walkinshaw, the boss of Formula One team TWR Arrows, available this summer, God is indeed in his heaven.

As usual, though, Hill preaches caution. "We can still undo the good work and finish the season on a downer," he warns. "The job is half-done, I'd say. No more than that. I'm contracted here for another four seasons and if I'm going to see this through, as I very much want to do, I think I'll need all the time that is currently available to me.

"I'm not a great one for sudden success, the quick fix; even as a player I went about things very methodically, stage by stage and piece by piece, making sure things were right before moving on to the next task.

"I look around me and I see clubs trying to get everything done yesterday. If it's not working perfectly, they scrap it; there's a definite culture of `Sod the second team' or `Sod the colts'. But word gets around and when these clubs start struggling at first team level, no one will want to know them.

"Agreed, I had to move a few players on when I arrived at the club and some of them were very familiar faces who had been tremendous servants for many years. But I've gone about this from the bottom up, tried to develop a strong work ethic and our sense of togetherness is such that with the possible exception of Charlie Mulraine, a third-string scrum- half who went to Moseley, we haven't lost a single player we would rather have kept."

A glance at the Kingsholm team-sheet reflects both new and old Gloucester. The first-choice pack were all born and bred in the city with the exception of England's new tight-head prop, Phil Vickery, who was imported from Cornwall. Outside, though, there are four England A backs from all points of the compass, supplemented by a Frenchman, an Australian and a South Sea Islander.

"We brought in the necessary personnel, simple as that," says Hill. "The old stories about Gloucester forwards still hold true: I could go out to Matson or Coney Hill, or over to Cheltenham, or across to the Forest of Dean and pull in fit, hard, quality forwards with the capacity to make a fist of it at professional level.

"But backs? They're a different matter around these parts. The forwards spent years working their fingers to the bone, only to find the threes throwing hard-earned possession away. It must have been soul-destroying for them. I decided very early that given the money, I would go further afield for our backs.

"The presence of Richie Tombs, Terry Fanolua, Philippe Saint-Andre and the rest has, in turn, brought more out of the pack. Take Pete Glanville, for instance, or Simon Devereux. They were honest grafters, loose forwards who could play a destructive game with the best of the them. Now, though, they play some football as well. They create. I'd like to think this Gloucester side has more strings to its bow now, particularly at home.

"If we have a priority, it must be an improvement in our away form. We still hold sides in awe when we travel; we seem to think `God, it's them, we haven't got a cat's hope in hell of winning this one'. It's a vicious circle. We've failed at some grounds so often that they've become bogey grounds and because they're now bogey grounds, we feel incapable of winning there.

"That's why I'll be interested to see how Newcastle react to what is bound to be a special occasion. Kingsholm will be new to quite a few of their players and while the lack of psychological baggage could work to their advantage, they could also be knocked sideways by the passion and atmosphere generated by the crowd. As I know from bitter experience, it's a very intimidating place to visit."