Hilton eager to extend winning habit

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS : Scotland have a trump in their pack for tomorrow's Grand Slam decider. Steve Bale reports
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It is hard to know whether it is Dave Hilton or Scotland, or Bath for that matter, who have the greater serendipity. Whichever, it was certainly a lucky accident that gave this ex-England Under-21 Bristol butcher to the Scots. Lucky for Hilton, lucky for Scotland.

You might imagine a butcher to be a prop but as Hilton is more burr than brogue you cannot readily imagine him as a Scot. Not when you are sitting outside his shop in a windswept, unsalubrious estate on the south side of Bristol, though Knowle West would not be out of place in certain windswept, unsalubrious parts of Glasgow.

Hilton is personally unbeaten in any game of rugby for a year and a fortnight as he prepares to win his fourth cap for the land of his grandfather in tomorrow's climactic Grand Slam match against the land of his and his parents' birth at Twickenham.

He is 24 and even now concedes that it was not until he was 19 or 20 that he "realised there was more to it than Bristol", in other words recognised the Scottishness in him, the Caledonian character passed on by paternal grandfather Walter, now 88, who was born in Edinburgh and emigrated to the West Country at a tender age.

Hilton junior's kilt for tomorrow night's function is in the McKay tartan of some of Walter's ancestors and has been provided, at a cost of £450, by a Glasgow newspaper. If he wore it around Knowle West, not only would his knees get freezing cold but the customers who rib him about his affiliation would have a source of amusement as fresh as Dave's pork chops.

Provided Scotland had beaten England, he would not give two hoots. "They could say what they like; if they are my customers I have to tolerate it but as I'd take about two weeks to sober up they could say anything they want," he said. And by the way, you would be ill-advised to back against a Scots team - any team - containing Hilton beating England.

He last played on a losing side when Rugby beat Bath 21-11 in an eve- of-international match on 4 March 1994. He has since won four from four for Scotland, two from two for Scotland A, four from four for Scottish Exiles, two from two for the Barbarians in Zimbabwe and 18 from 20, with two draws, for Bath. That makes 32 games without defeat.

The Baa-Baas left him out of their final tour match against the Zimbabwean national team and, serve them right, they lost. When you remember that these matches roughly cover Hilton's time in the Bath first team, his rush from club to country is yet more remarkable. "It has been a bewildering time," he gasped.

"My aspirations were always simply at club level and, after leaving Bristol, trying to get into the Bath team was a massive enough task in itself. But once I'd done it I thought I was playing quite well; we had won the league and were going to the cup final when I was chatting to Andy Reed and happened to mention that my grandfather was born in Edinburgh."

Reed is another part of the Scottish Bath connection, Cornish to the core (or so everyone fancied) until the fateful day when he wore a Heart of Midlothian scarf to watch a Plymouth Albion game and his antecedents were revealed. "He told me that if I was eligible I had to go for it," Hilton said.

"I phoned the Scottish Exiles, a couple of selectors came to my early games this season and before I'd even been to an Exiles training session I was announced in the preliminary World Cup squad. Each time they phoned it was with better news until finally I was in the A team to play South Africa last November."

It has become part of Scots rugby lore that Scotland A beat the Springboks 10 days before Scotland were hammered by them. Nine members of the A team were subsequently included in the side to play Canada in January and Hilton became the 10th when another tartan Bristolian, Alan Sharp, withdrew with a back injury subsequently shown to be two broken bones that had somehow not prevented him from playing in the South Africa international.

Since then Hilton's personal battle honours have included a try against Wales two weeks ago. "It's miraculous, really," he said. "Once I had declared for Scotland my main aim was to push myself into the World Cup squad and prove myself on the hard grounds in South Africa.

"I didn't think there would be any chance of ousting Alan but his injuries certainly gave me an early break. It would be dangerous to imagine I was that well established because if I had a bad game against England they'd be looking to other players."

This did not appear to be the case when Hilton came into the team after Scotland had endured nine consecutive defeats but that only goes to show how misleading appearances are. Just like the appearance of Hilton as a broad Bristolian. "I am as proud as the rest of the lads to play for his country, to have the thistle on his chest and to sing the national anthem in front of 68,000 people.

"But it does disturb me that all the time people keep asking how Scottish I feel and what I think gives me the right to be proud of Scotland. I can only say my roots come from Scotland. I hope it will fade away as time goes by but I have a feeling that even in 20 years' time I'll be asked the same things."

For now, though, he is prepared to be tolerant of persistent inquisitors, if only to enjoy it while he may. This is an international who took up rugby at 11 after a friend dragged him along to a school training session when what he really wanted to do was play football. A season with Dings Crusaders, the Bristol junior club, was followed by the obvious move to Bristol, 56 first-team appearances and a less obvious move to Bath in 1992.

When Gareth Chilcott conveniently retired there were more favoured candidates for the loose-head succession but it was Hilton who took the vacant place. These days he packs down in a front row also occupied by Victor Ubogu - and it is Ubogu, his own week-by-week comrade-in-arms who will pack down against him tomorrow. The best of enemies.

HILTON'S FIVE-STAR YEAR

1994

4 Mar Bath v Rugby (H) L 11-21

12 Mar Bath v Wasps (H) W 24-8

26 Mar Bath v N'cstle Gos (A) W 29-5

2 April Bath v Harlequins (A) W 26-25

9 April Bath v Leicester (H) W 14-6

23 April Bath v Harlequins (H) W 32-13

7 May Bath v Leicester (Twick) W 21-9

28 May Barbarians v Goshawks (Mutare)

W 53-9

2 June Barbarians v Matabeleland (Bulawayo)

W 35-23

3 Sept Bath v Barbarians (H) W 23-18

10 Sept Bath v Bristol (H) W 18-9

17 Sept Bath v Northampton (A) W 32-16

24 Sept Bath v Orrell (H) W 32-13

8 Oct Bath v Wasps (H) W 12-9

15 Oct Bath v West H'pool (A) W 20-18

22 Oct Bath v Leicester (H) D 20-20

9 Nov Scot A v S Africa (Melrose) W 17-15

19 Nov Bath v Coventry (A) W 45-10

26 Nov Bath v Loughboro' S (H) W 65-7

3 Dec Scot Ex v S of Scot (M'field) W 25-9

10 Dec Scot Ex v Glasgow (M'field) W 34-13

17 Dec Bath v L Scot (A) W 31-6

21 Dec Scot Ex v Scot N (M'field) W 41-13

24 Dec Scot Ex v E'burgh (M'field) W 19-16

1995

7 Jan Scotland A v Italy (Perth) W 18-16

14 Jan Bath v Northampton (H) W 26-6

21 Jan Scotland v Canada (M'field) W 22-6

4 Feb Scotland v Ireland (M'field) W 26-13

11 Feb Bath v Orrell (A) D 6-6

18 Feb Scotland v France (Paris) W 23-21

25 Feb Bath v Northampton (H) W 26-6

4 Mar Scotland v Wales (M'field) W 26-13

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