Hull at centre of new order

Stephen Brenkley talks to the England hopeful planning a change of roles
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IT IS easy to remember Paul Hull. He was the England rugby player who went out a youngster and came back a star. His performances evoked emotive verdicts which were unequivocal in their praise.

He was called an exciting revelation and the outstanding member of the side. It was reported after one inept team performance that only Hull emerged with honours and it was confidently asserted that he provided the side with the cutting edge they needed.

In three full matches, beginning with the tour of South Africa in the summer of 1994, Hull never put a foot wrong. Not, that is, until he left one exposed outside a ruck 26 minutes into his fourth match, against Canada, a year ago. His Achilles tendon, already sore, was accidentally trodden on. The Bristol full-back limped off the pitch and out of the team. That was a year ago at Twickenham; last week he returned, if not quite to the team, at least to the training squad. After the Canada game he fell from hero to outcast as swiftly as he had risen.

He missed selection for the home international season and was then omitted from the World Cup party. Although he was awarded the consolation prize of being captain of the England A team on the tour of Australia, he was again left out of the initial national training squad at the start of this season. It was one of the few recorded examples of Hull being sent to Coventry.

"I've been a bit disappointed but my career's been one of peaks and troughs," he said, reflecting on his misfortune, which some observers might view as shabby treatment. "I went on the England tour of Argentina five years ago when I probably wasn't ready, didn't do myself any justice and faded out of the scene. But I got back then."

It took him four years that time before his thrilling success in South Africa and at 27 he is aware he will not have as long again. But he is adamant that his self-belief and the urge to usurp Jonathan Callard in the present international side remains intact. "I think I have proved to myself I can do it and when I think I can't then I'll play the game purely for fun," he said. "At the moment I've still got plenty of ambitions left."

They involve not only England, but Bristol. As the club's new captain, a job he had not done until the summer tour, he is clearly prospering from the responsibility of leading a young, almost novice, team trying to keep pace with the big boys.

If he is not calling the shots on the field, fretting about his apprentices and trying to be their sorcerer all at once, he is acting as adviser and organiser off it and generally coming to terms with rugby union's new world. To help him to fulfil the role successfully Corporal Hull, RAF physical training instructor, will shortly leave the service to be merely captain Hull.

The necessary change in his working arrangement may be accompanied by another in his playing position. He is discovering that it is difficult to influence a team's direction from full-back and could well move to centre at Bristol. In revealing this he was keen to add that he would represent England anywhere and as someone versatile enough to have played in six positions outside the scrum he might just have the wherewithal to do so.

Nor is this all. Aware of his status as a non-kicking full-back (from the ground, that is, for his kicking from hand is delightful) he has assumed the mantle of goal-kicker. If he can start potting them consistently - Rob Andrew, for one, came to it late internationally - it could make a huge difference to his prospects. Nobody surely doubts his running angles, his awareness, his pace, his knack for attacking.

"I like to attack, to have the ball in my hands, but we've got to achieve the balance at Bristol," he said; and he could have been talking about England. He still has the time and the will to talk of England a whole lot more.