Rugby Union: Hill capitalises on his own resources

Paul Trow finds Gloucester are bucking the trend of buying success
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The Independent Online
At the end of a week when one former Bath stalwart walked through the door marked "Exit", another arrived in style.

For more than a decade Richard Hill and John Hall were comrades in arms at the Recreation Ground, guiding their beloved Bath to a cabinetful of trophies. While Hall stayed on to launch Bath's next generation, Hill, England's most capped scrum-half, took up residence with Gloucester, once proud but suffering from prolonged under-achievement.

Last season, Hill's first as director of coaching at Kingsholm, Gloucester struggled to third from bottom in Courage League One whereas Bath claimed their fourth league and cup double in eight years. A similar pattern seemed to be swiftly established at the start of the current campaign when Gloucester slumped to five early defeats.

But now, four months later, disgruntled Bath have parted company with Hall while Hill is celebrating a Gloucester club record of seven consecutive league victories and the chance of a Pilkington Cup semi-final place, pending Saturday's visit to Wakefield.

What makes this success especially impressive is that it has happened despite mistakes to which 35-year-old Hill cheerfully admits and the fact that "not one single penny has been injected into the club from outside".

Hill acknowledges his most glaring error was to field a reserve line- up for the opening league game at Harlequins. "At the start of the season I made a few odd decisions which I've since regretted, but it's been a learning process," he said.

"I thought it would be a good idea to run a squad because the players faced a lot of fixtures. I knew our first five matches would be tough so I sacrificed the United [second] team against Quins and saved the first- choice to face Sale. But we were ring rusty and lost 17-10, a silly result. We went into it cold, the worst thing we could have done. You should play your best side in every league game so they can develop an understanding."

Despite the start, Hill remained optimistic. "We played well against Saracens, Leicester and Bath despite losing to all three, and soon afterwards we ended Wasps' run of five wins. If you're losing and playing badly, then you think 'Where are we going?'. But that wasn't the case.

"Since October, fortunately, we've had few injuries. Now we're only a couple of points behind the top pack. After setting a target of 18 points for staying in League One, we've already got 14 with nine games remaining."

This has been done despite fewer than half of the first team being full- time, a low percentage for the top flight. "We've had to be prudent, set sensible salaries and budgets, and stick to them. It's essential we get some outside finance for next season. RFU money won't be sufficient. I want a squad of 26 players available during the day - we must provide a decent alternative so people can give up their jobs. But there are backers in Gloucester who don't want us to go the way of Orrell." The northern club are languishing at the bottom of the table with just one win so far.

Entrepreneurs lurking in Kingsholm's shadows should note Hill's shrewd use of resources. Take the re-invention of Mark Mapletoft, a prolific place- kicker who was once a full-back. "I decided Mark should try flyhalf even though he'd never done it before as Chris Catling, the England Under- 21 full-back, had joined us. England have lots of good full-backs but a dearth of fly-halves. Mark's keen to get his international career up and running, and now he's fourth in the pecking order behind Grayson, Catt and King. He's also the country's leading scorer - he always could kick but he's got 16 tries as well. He's a Stuart Barnes type, both as a person and a player. There's a strong physical resemblance, but he probably needs another 12 months before getting an England chance."

Scott Benton, Gloucester's England A scrum-half, has also risen rapidly this season. "He's probably fifth behind Gomarsall, Healey, Bracken and Dawson. I spend a session every week working with Scott - I'm a great believer in the importance of a good half-back combination. Jack Rowell always stressed that to Barnes and myself at Bath."

Which brings Hill back to the club he played for, and still lives near. "I'm still close to the club and last week's events were inevitable, though they happened sooner than expected. It hasn't quite got to the stage where the manager gets the chop for losing a couple of games, but other things there weren't quite right.

"Andrew Brownsword is one of the wealthiest men in Britain because he's an astute businessman. We're in a ruthless world now. The money men are ringing up their directors of rugby on Friday and asking 'Are we going to win?' Then they're ringing up again on Sunday to ask 'Why did we lose?' "

Thanks to Gloucester's recent run, Hill's phone is enjoying a few quiet Sabbaths.

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