Rugby Union: Hill is the binding force

Andrew Longmore says the unsung flanker may be England's key man
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The Independent Online
THE DEBATE was tense and could have gone either way. The taut faces of Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer reflected the dilemma. Both Lions coaches were Neil Back men. Back symbolised the sharp, incisive, fluent game they wanted to play. Yet another figure loomed large over the red Lions No 7 jersey for the opening Test against South Africa. The documentary cameras recorded a telling glimpse of the soul-searching.

McGeechan, whether out of tact or genuine amnesia, says he cannot remember the exact tone of the conversation at that critical selection meeting. But the back row names that were read out to the squad later were: Dallaglio (6), Hill (7) and Rodber (8). "It's always a balance in the back row," McGeechan says nearly two years on. "It could easily have gone the other way, but we were looking at what happened at the breakdown and we wanted to make sure we'd got it right in that area. Richard [Hill] has very good awareness and a high work rate around the ball, he's very hard and he's very effective."

It is strange; you rarely get a sense of Hill's excellence from the comfortable side of the barriers. Dallaglio has the more visible talent, while Back's blond mane gives him the cavalier dash of Jean-Pierre Rives. Yet speak to any one forward about Richard Hill and they will shrug and say he's just a good guy to play with. Better with than against, for sure, as the Welsh are bound to discover at Wembley this afternoon. It is the unselfish way Hill applies himself to the task that appeals to coaches and his fellow pros.

Mark Evans, director of rugby at Saracens, where Hill has graduated from former England schoolboy into fully fledged British Lion, calls Hill the "cement" in the back row. "He's not flashy, is he?" Evans says. "He very much plays to the game plan he's asked to follow. His first cap for England, I remember, he played as a very orthodox No 7, sat on Gregor Townsend and had a very good game."

Since then, Hill has switched numbers like the Lottery. For the Lions he was chosen on the open side for the first two Tests, the role he favours. At the start of this Five Nations season he was back at No 8, before trading places with Dallaglio for the untidy victory over France. Clive Woodward, the England coach, said the England captain would benefit from a broader vision of the game, but it was an unspoken compliment to Hill that the switch to the blind side was made so seamlessly.

"It's just been a big help that we've played together as a back row all season, even though we're really three open sides," Hill says. "All three of us are ball-players and none of us is afraid to make decisions on the ball. After a time, you get an instinctive feeling for how the others are going to play. I start to know what angle of run Backy will make or where Lawrence will go."

If there is a statement of intent to be made about Clive Woodward's brave new England, its most eloquent testifiers can be found in the back row. "The No 7 reflects the style," says McGeechan. "If you are playing a very committed forward game a genuine No 7 is less important. That used to be the case with England. Before Neil Back, the only genuine No 7 they used was Peter Winterbottom. By genuine No 7 I mean someone who keeps his nose very close to the ball, who's always second man to the tackle, who can get his hands on the ball very quickly. New Zealand always had genuine No 7s."

So why is Hill, a Lions No 7, playing everywhere but there for England? "There's less differentiation between six, seven and eight than there was five years ago," McGeechan adds. "The No 6 is no longer a big, bulky, crash-bash type of player who gets buried in big heaps. Back rows these days are genuinely thinking about making contact with the backs, about handling and linking."

Whatever the number, Hill fits the bill. The only problem so far is that the Ferrari-styled lines on Woodward's drawing board have turned unerringly into chunky family estates on the park. The gloom of the England dressing- room after victories over Scotland and France reflected ambitions loftier than a mere Grand Slam. "We haven't played anywhere near our potential," Hill admits. "It's been very frustrating. Today we have to come off Wembley knowing we have put into practice what we've done out on the training field."

For all that, no one will be more thankful for what he has than Hill. A complex back operation could have cut short his international career almost before it had begun. But it was a measure of the man's meticulousness that the long and painful process of recovery seemed outwardly so straightforward; a tribute to his courage that he came back and emerged the unanimous winner in an early-season contest for Saracens against Back's all-powerful Leicester. There are still some weight-training routines Hill dare not tackle. But the Welsh will look in vain for any signs of weakness. "He doesn't get into important situations and then disappear," McGeechan adds. "In Tests, you get half an opportunity around the ball and you need someone mentally and physically hard enough to make the most of them. Richard's a very honest player."

Scott Quinnell, in the Welsh back row, will need no further advertisements of Hill's prowess. The pair first locked horns at Colwyn Bay at Under- 18 level when Barrie-Jon Mather was in the second row for England and Matt Dawson was scrum-half. It will be an old boys' reunion today. And at Wembley, of all places. Hill has only been there once, to watch England's footballers lose to Chile. "Not much of an omen," he shrugs. Wales might need a little more than that to topple the bricks and mortar of the England back row.