Rugby Union: Hill a victim as ambition overtakes tradition

Tim Glover sees the winds of reality rip through years of history
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The Independent Online
DEFEAT AT Kingsholm is bad enough, but to lose to Harlequins is, in the eyes of the faithful, tantamount to desecration. In one respect, Gloucester's loss to Quins last weekend was not that unwelcome in the boardroom. It helped to ratify a decision taken two days earlier: the shedding of Richard Hill.

The directors, led by Tom Walkinshaw, who owns 74 per-cent of the club, unanimously agreed that Gloucester had spun off the track and that Hill, the man behind the wheel, was responsible for driver error. "You only had to look at the body language of the players and hear the mutterings of the crowd," David Foyle, the chairman, said.

Yet when Foyle broke the news to Hill 48 hours after the defeat, the former England scrum-half had no inkling that his days were numbered. "Telling someone you have great respect for something you never dreamt of telling him was very difficult," Foyle said. "He was very dignified."

Before driving to Leeds to oversee England A against Scotland on Friday, Hill said: "I'm bitterly disappointed. I'd enjoyed every minute, but our position in the league is not very healthy and success is demanded these days. There are a lot of good young players at the club; they'll have a very good side at some stage and that's why it's so hard to leave." The squad, Hill said, "were a bit shocked, like myself. We had a very good relationship".

Then it was Walkinshaw's turn. The chairman of English First Division rugby interrupted a family skiing holiday in the French Alps to address everyone at the club, from the cleaner to the players. The board, he said, had made a decision and Philippe Saint-Andre had accepted a invitation to take over.

Walkinshaw gave it his personal touch because he was determined his employees would not read about it in the newspapers first. He invited just two reporters, from The Gloucester Citizen and the Press Association. "I realise a lot of you are absolutely knackered," Walkinshaw told the players. There were few questions, although Walkinshaw assured Dave Sims, the skipper, that there would be a player representative in talks about the future of the club. Walkinshaw returned to the Alps, via a flying visit to Barcelona to check on the progress of his Formula One team, Arrows.

Walkinshaw may be even more passionate about rugby than he is about motor racing. A one-time player, he used to stand with the die-hards in the Shed, a West Country version of the Kop. A measure of the strength of this rugby stronghold since 1873 is that, uniquely, the Citizen never leads its front page on a Saturday night with football. And a measure of the economic turmoil of the game is that if the Cherry and Whites are sneezing, everybody's going to catch a cold.

"Our support is among the best in the country," Foyle said. "Imagine what it would be like if we were playing well." Gloucester have been playing badly, dropping to 10th in the Premiership. Whatever else, they would always play with such passion at Kingsholm that better sides would be undone. Even that's gone.

At the beginning of the season Hill got the budget he asked for (about pounds 1.5m for players' salaries) and set a target of finishing in the top four. "We started quite well," Foyle said, "but since Christmas we've hit a brick wall. We had to do something now to turn things around. We are an ambitious club and Tom Walkinshaw is an ambitious operator."

Hill, who has suffered this season through injuries to key forwards, notably Phil Vickery and Pete Glanville, was popular at Kingsholm. He was honest, approachable and committed. He also made mistakes. He once lost a league match 75-19 to Quins after deliberately fielding a weakened side, and this season his dropping of Sims did not meet with Shed approval. His overall record was played 136, won 72, lost 60, a success rate of 54 per cent; at home it was nearly 74 per cent, away 34 per cent.

In the cathedral city, the elevation of Saint-Andre, a former captain of France, to player-coach has Shed approval. When he was recruited by Hill two seasons ago, the Montferrand wing said he wanted to touch some real English roots rather than get involved with cosmopolitan London.

Saint-Andre, who lives in Cheltenham and whose business in France is in Irish bars, spoke last week of a top-six place in the Premiership next season but with a significantly reduced squad. That doesn't mean he will not be able to recruit, although the prospect of the French stand-off Thomas Castaignede joining the club was ridiculed on the Website. "Do you think a bedsit off Barton Street and a free pass to the ski slopes is going to tempt him?" asked one supporter. Another questioned Saint-Andre's CV, "or is that 2CV?"

Foyle, referring to the example of the player-coaches Francois Pienaar at Saracens and Rob Andrew at Newcastle, said: "We have one of the most experienced international captains in-house. He is respected by the players, has great ideas and it will cause a minimum amount of disruption."

Saint-Andre promises a more passionate affair when Harlequins return to Kingsholm on Saturday for the Tetley's Bitter Cup quarter-final. He immediately struck a chord with the fans by recognising that it is not cheap to watch at Kingsholm. Season ticket prices have risen by nearly 50 per cent; to stand in the Shed is pounds 15, to sit pounds 20. Saint-Andre, who has been besieged by the French media, who are drawing a parallel with Arsenal's French connection, said: "One thing is sure. We will play with a big heart."

Today he will be in the Kingsholm dug-out for the visit of Leeds in the Cheltenham and Gloucester Cup. As the holders, the club has its name written all over this trophy.

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