Rugby Union: Hill undone by false optimism

Coach made fall guy as investment fail to pay off.
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The Independent Online
IT DID not need a Stephen Hawking to work out that Richard Hill's tenure at Gloucester had become tenuous. The home defeat against Harlequins just accelerated the inevitable.

The board had met last Thursday and had already decided that Hill had to go - thereafter it was only a matter of time. And, after speaking to the club's owner Tom Walkinshaw, who was abroad on a ski-ing holiday, the Gloucester chairman, David Foyle, called Hill in on Monday to inform him of the decision.

Walkinshaw went off piste and flew in to Staverton airport to the north of Gloucester yesterday morning and at 9.30am addressed the whole of the playing and administrative staffs in person. According to one insider there was a collective sadness at Hill's departure, even though the rumour mills had been churning for weeks there was still an element of surprise.

When Hill took over the reins in October 1995 his task was straightforward, avoid relegation and keep Gloucester in the First Division. The former England and Bath scrum-half achieved that target by the narrowest of margins, the club finishing eighth out of 10 that season. There was no big spending budget so the following year (1996-1997) could be regarded as possibly Hill's best since, with a limited amount to spend on players, he contrived to move the club up to seventh place out of 12 and they equalled their Cup run of the previous year as well, reaching the semi-finals. As happened in Hill's first season when they met Bath in the last four, they lost - this time to Leicester - the eventual winners.

At the end of that season Hill had a big clear-out. Players whose better days were well behind them were gently helped out. By this time Walkinshaw had bought into the club, paying an estimated pounds 2.5m for a 73 per cent share in April 1997, and so suddenly that Hill had what was regarded as the missing piece in the jigsaw, cash with which to buy players.

Hill is a canny man and he spent wisely and well. In came some remarkably good overseas players - Philippe Saint-Andre, Terry Fanolua and Richard Tombs - as well as other astute domestic buys.

Sadly, it made no difference. At the end of that season, having been dismissed in the fifth round of the Cup, they failed to improve on their position in the Premiership, once more finishing seventh out of 12. Therein lay one of the factors behind the decision to terminate his contract.

At the start of this season Hill had told Walkinshaw to expect the club to finish in fourth place, the reality finds them ninth out of 14 with only an outside chance of reaching half-way.

Another of Hill's big headaches throughout his three and a bit years in charge was Gloucester's chronic homesickness. They just could not win enough matches away from Kingsholm to make a significant impact. In his time in charge Hill watched the Cherry and Whites lose 30 league matches in 38 trips away, winning seven and drawing one. It was not good enough.

Walkinshaw, though, did not incline to the view that the away form was the chief factor. He said: "Everyone has talked about the away games but it was only a matter of time before we slipped up at Kingsholm because we were struggling to hold on in the home games as well." It remains to be seen whether his successor, Saint-Andre, can improve matters.

Where Hill, who is involved with the England A squad, goes from here is unclear.

Before joining Gloucester he was heavily involved with Bath, both as player and official, and it could be that Gloucester's fierce West Country rivals could find a place for him on their coaching staff.