Rugby Union / Five Nations Championship: Formidable foes aim for happy returns: Blind-side flanker with clear vision: John Hall and Gary Armstrong make their comebacks at Murrayfield today. Steve Bale talked to both

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The Independent Online
JOHN HALL celebrated his England recall after three wilderness years against Argentina at Twickenham in November 1990. John Hall celebrates his England recall after three more wilderness years against Scotland at Murrayfield this afternoon.

Deja vu? Of course. This is a man, 31 now and knowing his time may be nearly up, who never bends the knee before adversity. And goodness knows he has had enough adversity, most of it to do with the knees he never metaphorically bends. 'It has been one thing after another,' he said.

Given that he has played just once for England since 1987, it is fairly remarkable to relate that Hall made his international debut 10 years and one day ago, as a replacement for Peter Winterbottom here in Edinburgh. He won his 19th cap in the Calcutta Cup match which preceded the 1987 World Cup.

Then his troubles really began. The classiest blind-side flanker in England he may well have been, but people were wondering at his temperament and this was also when the worst of the injuries started. In 1989 he made himself unavailable for England and was then twice sent off, the second time two days after he had informed Geoff Cooke, the England manager, that he would like to be considered again.

He finally made it against the Pumas, scoring a comeback try, but two months later the knee gave way when England were training in Lanzarote and, though he went on the 1991 tour to Australia, the injury recurred, infection and illness subsequently set in and he missed not only the '91 World Cup but the entire 1991-92 season.

All of which has perhaps done him more good than harm. 'I have become very philosophical, more laid-back and relaxed,' Hall said. 'If things don't go your way there's no point shouting about it.' This would seem a distinctly unremarkable philosophy - except for the fact that Hall, by his own admission, could scarcely have been more different in his prodigal younger days.

'I was quite a hothead and I probably used to come across the wrong way,' he said. 'You can tell from the reaction you get from other people. I quite like myself now in the sense that I get nice vibes from other people whereas in the past I maybe didn't.

'Maybe it's because I'm more affable company or simply more relaxed and easier to approach. Believe it or not, when I was young I was quite shy and that probably showed itself in a form of arrogance. I've lost that now.'

Good for Hall, not just to have improved himself but to recognise that he needed improving. Whatever questions may have been asked about his commitment in the past, now there are none. Like his friend and Bath team-mate Stuart Barnes before him, he did a wonderful job of leading the England A team and if the motivation was not entirely altruistic who could blame him? Barnes has shown him the way.

It had been carefully planned. 'I sat down with Ged Roddy (the Bath fitness adviser) a couple of years ago and told him my main aim had to be to get back in the England side,' Hall said. 'He told me we had to break it down into stages, so the first thing was to get back playing, next to reach a standard where I got my first-team place back, then to develop from there. It was a slow process and I had to be very patient.

'With the catalogue of injuries I had over that couple of years, the England selectors were bound to be doubtful about me. What I had to do after returning to the Bath team was represent England at some level and that proved to be through the A team. It was the only way back for me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.'

Hall subsequently made last summer's England tour to Canada under John Olver's captaincy, had a superb game leading the South-West against New Zealand in October and was back leading England A against the All Blacks at Gateshead a week later. All this, remember, on a dicky knee which has fundamentally altered the way he plays.

'He used to be extremely fast but with his knee injuries and age that went a bit,' Barnes said. 'But John's greatest asset has always been not so much physical as mental. I always thought he knew the game, read it well, and when the rampaging went out of his game he adapted to become a tighter loose forward, very powerful in his wrapping-up tackles and remarkable in his ability to control a game.

'Out of his generation he was always the one who understood the game from a back's as well as a forward's perspective. The big question was his fitness and in that respect he has more than proved himself. He thoroughly deserves it.' The outside-half is a comforting presence for Hall in Edinburgh this weekend, though his own England return proved almost as fleeting as Hall's in 1990 and he went back to the bench after two games.

'My positional sense is more acute because I'm not as quick as I was, but I would like to make the point that I'm still reasonably quick,' Hall said. 'I'm certainly quicker than people like Dean Richards. I'm not a Neil Back that goes sprinting round and turning up in all types of position but I certainly have enough pace for international rugby. I think I read the game pretty well, know where the ball is going to go and take the shortest route.'

Unbridled fatalist that he now is, the Bath captain is aware that his fate may be similar to Barnes's.

Injuries to Richards and Tim Rodber opened the way for Hall's selection to face Scotland and, whereas his 1990 recall left him as excited as if he had been winning his first cap, this time he is overcome with realism rather than rapture.

'The difference is I was selected in my own right for the Argentina game and if the back row who played for England against New Zealand were available it would have been unlikely that I would have been in against the Scots. Having said that, I want to make sure I have a really good game and put myself in a strong position for the next selection. And I want to enjoy it.' So there is a limit to Hall's fatalism after all.

(Photograph omitted)

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