Master of all his trades

Mark Evans, the Saracens coach, analyses his England debutant Richard Hill
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Richard Hill is a man of few words, which in this age of the soundbite and self-promotion comes as something of a pleasant change. Never completely comfortable when talking about himself, he prefers to concentrate on playing his own game and to let others make their own minds up about his ability. And yet he does not lack confidence or a sense of direction.

Within one month of joining Saracens in 1992, Richard had made it clear that he had no interest whatsoever in being a bits and pieces back-row player. You know how it goes: a little bit of time on the blind-side, a few games at No 8 (where he played his England age-group rugby) and maybe a try-out at open-side if there are a few injuries. "I'm an open- side," he said firmly. "Why's that, Richard," we asked, "you've never actually played more than a couple of games there, have you?" Back came the quiet reply. "Because that's the only position in which I will be able to play for England."

That was pretty focused for a 20-year-old student at a new club - and since that time the black No 7 shirt has become his own personal property.

As a player, one of his greatest attributes is his flexibility. Unlike many open-sides he is not one-dimensional - he can play in a variety of styles. He is big enough to be an effective ball-carrier, fast enough to link play between phases and aggressive enough to knock opponents over and drive them back behind the gain line. With the ball in hand he distributes well, while in contact he looks after the ball. In the 12 league and cup games he has played this season he has yet to make a handling error or turn over possession - a remarkable level of consistency.

Over the years he has worked hard at his game - always looking to improve and rarely being satisfied with his performance. He had a professional attitude towards rugby well before there was any money in the game and he has always been keener to hear about how he could get better rather than how well he was playing.

Every time a weakness has been identified his response has been the same: practise and train to eradicate it. Even to the extent that, when earlier this season, he heard that some observers thought he might lack a certain "hardness", he discussed the possibility of changing his body language in order to appear more overtly aggressive. In the end, he decided against it. "Just need to make even more tackles, I suppose," he mused. "More big hits and the odd yellow card, perhaps - what do you think?"

The rest of the pack advised him to keep playing his game. "Look at Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld," they said. "Your opponents know how hard you hit, how physical you are. The word will get about." And it is true, he is a hard man in the best sense of the word.

If that makes Richard sound one of the "new breed" of robotic, faceless rugby obsessives, then that's unfortunate. It is true that he has grown up in an environment where diet sheets, fitness schedules and the whole sports-science paraphernalia have become the norm; where twice-a-day training and a curtailed social life are the price to be paid. But Richard has known no other way - he is a thoroughly modern rugby player.

And yet in other ways his background is the classic English rugby story. Mini-rugby at the age of five, desperately trying to emulate his big brother. A sound sporting education at Bishop Wordsworth under the tutelage of Steve Ralph Bowman. The early appearances for Salisbury rugby club - a town and club to which he is fiercely loyal. Topping it off, attendance at West London Institute, that well-known rugby finishing academy, before joining Saracens. The family entourage still follow him all over the country, his girlfriend Claire has been enormously supportive, and at heart he seems simply to love the game.

The last quiet open-side who played for England was Peter Winterbottom, and since his departure the position has never been satisfactorily filled. Perhaps in Richard Hill, England have finally found a long-term replacement in the same determined and single-minded mould.