Rugby Union: Hall emerges from the dark

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IT WAS five days before England opened their 1987 World Cup campaign against Australia that things began to go badly wrong for John Hall.

Since making his international debut in 1984, as a replacement for Peter Winterbottom against Scotland at Murrayfield, Hall had established himself as a formidable competitor and an automatic choice in England's back row. Midway through the session he felt a twinge in his right knee. That evening the joint was stiff and the next day brought little relief. He trained for part of the session but it wasn't long before the pain became intolerable.

Hall's World Cup was over before it had begun. The three good years of international rugby were to be followed by five wretched years of crippling injury, frustration and despair.

His first cap at Murrayfield had been one of the few positive aspects of England's performance that day. They had lost the match but won the second half in which Hall had played. The truth was that England, at that time, were a very mediocre side. Haphazard organisation, eccentric selection - recurring problems in English rugby - continued to bedevil the national team.

The side who toured South Africa later that season were no better, although the back row of Hall, Winterbottom and Chris Butcher escaped criticism. Hall's competitive instinct and abrasiveness allied to his natural aptitude for the game won him the admiration of the South Africans. He also gained the respect of the All Blacks during England's equally unsuccessful tour to New Zealand the following season.

Now, two years later and at the height of his powers, he had been struck down by injury, but the prognosis on the knee was more encouraging than he had expected. The problem had been caused by floating flakes of bone, the result of excessive wear and tear. The debris was cleared out and Hall began playing again the next season.

The starting-up of his own company severely curtailed Hall's rugby activities for the next couple of seasons. He continued to play regularly for Bath, mostly with distinction but, occasionally now, he allowed the aggression which is such a vital component in a flanker's play to get out of control. There were dismissals from the field and dark mutterings of temperamental instability.

The reasons for Hall's behaviour were not hard to find. His business was struggling and his problems off the field were arresting his progress on it. The combination of this and an over-eagerness to be part of England's new regime under Geoff Cooke, produced a combustible cocktail which was beginning to jeopardise his international career. Hall's disciplinary record was one of the reasons why the selectors omitted him from the England tour of Argentina in 1990.

The next season began promisingly enough and in the league games against Northampton and Orrell Hall played some of the best rugby of his life. At last he was back in the arena he loved and getting more enjoyment out of the game than he could ever remember.

The selectors had been out in force and his performances had not gone unnoticed. With two sides due to be selected for the England B game against Namibia and the full international against Argentina, he felt confident that he would be picked for one of them.

The B side, Hall thought, was the more likely and on the day the teams were due to be announced he telephoned his mother who was never far from her television. 'Any news? Am I in the B side?' Hall asked. 'No,' came the reply, 'but you are in the full side.'

Hall ran out at Twickenham for his 20th cap with all the twitching nervousness he had felt on his first appearance six years previously at Murrayfield. England trounced the Pumas and Hall played a blinder. Furthermore, he was very much in tune with Cooke's management techniques which were not dissimiliar to those employed by Jack Rowell at Bath.

It was a very different atmosphere to the one he had experienced in the early years of his international career when there was no such thing as a structured season and when England selectors appeared to place more faith in the pin than the toothcomb.

The weeks between playing against Argentina in November 1990 and England's now regular training stint at Lanzarote at the beginning of the new year, were blissful ones for Hall. He had re-established himself in the national side and had regained the selectors' trust. Soon after the squad had arrived at Lanzarote, the team to play Wales in Cardiff was announced. Hall was in, on the blind side.

One contact session was all that stood between Hall and his first championship match for four years. Winterbottom came off the back of a scrum and Hall, taking Winterbottom's pass at speed, crashed into the tackles of Nigel Redman and Gary Pearce. Once again it was the right knee which suffered. The ligaments were badly stretched and the cartilege torn. Another early departure, another operation and more precious time lost. Six weeks later Hall was back playing but too late to be recalled to a side who were three-quarters of the way to winning a Grand Slam.

He was back in England's party to tour Fiji and Australia at the end of the 1991 season, but by now his expectation of survival was so low that the recurrence of the pain in his right knee prior to the World Cup hardly came as a surprise.

More debris was removed but two days out of hospital and the knee began to swell alarmingly. An infection which had begun where the incisions had been made was spreading rapidly. For two weeks Hall lay in hospital seriously ill. He lost 2st and most of the muscle from his right leg.

Frustration turned to despair. It was a forlorn figure which would hobble into the Recreation Ground on crutches to watch Bath play on a Saturday afternoon. 'I was run down and my resistance was so low that I seriously thought about packing it in,' Hall said. 'There seemed no point in carrying on.' But as the weeks passed so did Hall's mood of depression.

By the end of last season he had rebuilt most of the muscle and a summer of relentless weight training and running brought him to the start of this season in reasonable shape.

An injury to the club's captain, Andy Robinson, elevated Hall to the first team sooner than expected and so well has he played since that he has never looked like relinquishing his position, despite fierce competition from Steve Ojomoh.

So once again Hall stands on the brink of England selection and whether or not he is named later today in the side to play France at Twickenham a fortnight hence, will very much depend on his fitness in Lanzarote. Hall reckons that he is only 5 per cent below peak fitness.

If he is selected it will be a remarkable triumph over adversity and a tribute to his courage, dedication and bloody-minded determination, qualities which have sustained him through many of his darkest moments.

Hall admits that the injuries have inevitably taken their toll and that he is no longer as fast off the mark as he once was. But experience and maturity have, to a large extent, compensated for this and the tightness in Hall's play could be a very powerful factor in favour of blending him with the indefatigable Winterbottom and the free-ranging Ben Clarke.

Experience, however, has also taught Hall to take nothing for granted. Lanzarote is probably his last chance to reclaim his place in the national side. He will hold nothing back; nor will his unquenchable optimism permit him to look back in anger or bitterness at a potentially great career blighted by injury and misfortune.

(Photograph omitted)