A towering presence

profile John Hall
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Bath's inspirational leader aims to bow out in triumph. Chris Rea assesses a major player

POUND for pound, and when John Hall was at his peak, he was the finest player England has produced in the modern era. That is the considered opinion of Gareth Chilcott, who packed down in the same scrums with Hall for club and country and is well qualified as a judge. What is more, Chilcott believes that Hall, when he first arrived at Bath's Recreation Ground as a callow 18-year-old, was at least 10 years ahead of his time. "He had speed, strength, agility and ball handling skills that were quite exceptional. They are all the qualities we expect of back row forwards nowadays but at the time his talents were quite unique."

Equally impressive in Chilcott's view has been Hall's adaptability over the years to a fast-changing game and to the physical limitations imposed upon him by serious injury. A dicky right knee which, at the most conservative of estimates, has cost him 25 caps, participation in two World Cups and a place in at least one of England's three Grand Slam-winning sides in the past five years, inevitably impaired Hall's speed and suppleness. "And yet," says Chilcott, "he transformed himself from a dynamic and versatile loose forward into the most effective blind-side stopper in the business. The weight and accuracy of his tackling has been phenomenal and one of Bath's most effective attacking weapons over the years."

It is one of the great sadnesses that the rugby public at large have been denied the opportunity of seeing Hall in his prime. Not that the player himself is the least bitter about his wretched fortune. "I have been privileged to play in one of the finest club sides in the game's history and alongside some of the world's best players. I have won cups and leagues with Bath and 21 caps for my country and I have had a hell of a lot of fun in the process."

End of story? Quite possibly. At the age of 33 and at a time when he is still playing well enough to have come tantalisingly close to selection for England's World Cup squad, he is retiring from the game. He was hoping to make his final appearance for Bath next Saturday in the entirely appropriate setting of a cup final at Twickenham. However, having picked up a shoulder injury in yesterday's game against Sale, he is doubtful for Saturday and may already have closed his account.

Hall took his first steps in the game as a fly-half, however, by the time he left school and joined Oldfield Old Boys he had been converted to the back row where his preferred position was at No 8. His mentor at Oldfield was Dick Millard, who, having helped nurture this talent, quickly realised that the club was taking from its prodigy much more than it was able to give, and he encouraged Hall to seek challenges elsewhere. For Hall there was nowhere else other than Bath. And although the club had not yet entered their golden period it was clear to Hall that they were on the verge of greatness. "Jack Rowell was building a strong squad and there were some top class players, among them John Horton at fly-half and the captain Roger Spurrell on the open-side flank."

Spurrell's influence on the brashly ambitious teenager was immediate. "I was so impatient when I arrived at the club," recalls Hall. "I remember constantly nagging Spurrell to pick me in the first XV." To Hall, as he was to so many others at the club, Spurrell was something of a folk hero. Utterly fearless and competitive, he was symbolic of where the club was going and how it intended to get there. But while Bath's results were gradually improving, there was an inconsistency about their performances.

In those days, success for an English club was measured against the best Welsh sides and in the early Eighties there was no more formidable force than Pontypool. Chilcott well remembers the fixture in 1982 when Hall made his first team debut. "Pontypool were at full strength and John was on the bench. He came on as a replacement, took over the game and was man-of-the-match. Far from being in awe of the opposition, he treated them as if they were third-raters."

The following season and playing in a back row alongside Spurrell and Paul Simpson, Hall was a regular member of the first team. Throughout that season he and Simpson were engaged in a try- scoring duel which Hall eventually won 23 to 22. It was towards the end of that season that Hall, along with many other discerning observers, realised that Bath's time had finally come. "In our last six matches in 1983 we played six of the top sides in the country - Cardiff, Llanelli, Swansea, Newport, Leicester and Bristol - and we won the lot. That was some achievement and it convinced us that we were up there with the best."

Since the first of Bath's eight cup victories in 1984, others have tried with varying degrees of success to imitate them but their record in the past decade is one that will probably never be surpassed. Throughout the almost unbroken sequence of success, Bath have drawn heavily on Hall's resilience, courage and experience. The impetuous and occasionally hot- headed youth has mellowed into the elder statesman. But if injuries and the constant wear and tear of battle have inevitably taken their toll, Hall remains a daunting physical presence and not a man to be trifled with. Mickey Skinner discovered that to his cost, as have many others seeking confrontation. But even in the intimidatory arts Hall's demeanour is understated. Not for him the rabid grimace of the pit bull or the snarling contortions cosmetically engineered by tape and Vaseline. His very presence is fearsome enough and the message is clear - "don't even think about it".

It is predictable perhaps that Hall should select a kindred spirit, Peter Winterbottom, as the player he respects above all others. "You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of poor games Peter played. He never gave less than 100 per cent, whether he was playing for his country or the extra As. You have to admire someone who is prepared to give so much of himself to the game". And who gets the vote as Hall's favourite non- Englishman? "Stuart Barnes", he says without hesitation. "A bloody good Welsh fly-half."

Hall and Barnes forged their friendship on the Penguins tour to Kenya in 1983 when Barnes was at Bristol and the relationship has survived success and failure, joy and disappointment and, most testing of all, Barnes's re-invention in the media as a critic. The two played on opposite sides in the 1984 Cup final when Barnes missed a kick which would have won the match for Bristol. "Stuart has won more finals for Bath than he's given credit for," says Hall in light- hearted admiration of the man whose drop goal in the last second of extra time in the 1992 final against Harlequins has gone down in the annals of sporting legend.

That is one of the cherished moments Hall will take with him into retirement, along with his first Cup winners' medal and leading Bath to the League and Cup double last season. "It may sound corny but my satisfaction in that achievement wasn't a personal thing but came from the sheer pleasure of seeing how much it meant to the other players". That Hall hasn't selected one of his international appearances for his store of treasured memories is strange but hardly surprising. When he won his first caps, out-dated assumption of England's status had already yielded to the weight of the statistical reality that they were no longer a world power. It was after their dismal showing in the 1987 World Cup that Hall decided to concentrate his attentions on his club where Jack Rowell's vision was taking Bath to undreamed of success in the cup and in the newly- established leagues.

If Hall has a regret it is his misfortune in missing out on Lions' selection and on England's success. Right up to the end he has been denied. Selected for the A side to play against Natal last month, he did all that was asked of him, enough, he felt, to have merited a place in the World Cup squad. "I was asked a question and I answered it," said Hall. "Which makes me wonder why I was asked the question in the first place." It was, as Rowell has publicly acknowledged, one of the hardest decisions he has ever had to make as a selector.

But if England haven't always made best use of Hall's talent it is inconceivable that Bath, the ship he has helped design, will not find room for him somewhere on the bridge. A management post perhaps for this highly articulate man whose job as a financial adviser makes him eminently well-suited for such a position in the modern game? Hall knew that yesterday's League match, his last in a Bath jersey at the Rec, would be an emotional occasion but the sorrow of the parting was sweetened by the knowledge that after 14 glorious years his timing is, yet again, impeccable.