Rugby Union: Hill primed to answer England call

Chris Hewett meets the formidable young Saracen expected to provide continuity against Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham on Saturday
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The Independent Online
A certain Mrs Hill of Salisbury is not best pleased that England have a new open-side flanker. Indeed, if any more back-slapping messages of support find their misguided way on to her answerphone, she will probably sue the national selectors for punitive damages.

"It's all rather embarrassing," admits Richard Hill, the aforementioned wing forward who makes his international debut against Scotland in this Saturday's Calcutta Cup match. "My parents live in Salisbury and have just been given a new phone number. Completely by chance, their old number has gone to another Mrs Hill. She's been under siege, the poor woman."

If the Scots find themselves under siege on Saturday afternoon, the 23- year-old Saracen will be one of those hurling boulders at the castle walls. For almost four years, England have been ferreting around for a fast, footballing link man to provide some much-needed continuity between the dinosaurs up front and the whippets behind. Jack Rowell has tried Ben Clarke, Neil Back, Andy Robinson and Lawrence Dallaglio while holding his breath for a combination of all four. Hill's attacking instincts suggest he just might fit the bill.

He has been a fixture on the Next Big Thing list since his schooldays at Bishop Wordsworth in Salisbury. (Ready for more name-game confusion? Richard Hill is the most accomplished rugby product to emerge from that particular sixth-form common room since, er, Richard Hill, who won the first of 29 caps as England's scrum-half in 1984).

Yet while Hill Jnr was capped at 18-Group level - his performance in a losing cause in the schools cup final at Twickenham five years ago was, by common consent, that of a world-class loose forward in the making - it has taken him longer than expected to hit the heights.

"I toured Australia and Fiji with England A in 1995 and, to be frank, it was a big disappointment. It wasn't a case of my expecting to be the No 1 open-side, but I knew I had every chance of achieving that position if I played well. As it happened, I didn't play anything like well. Rory Jenkins of Harlequins got the nod for the big games and I ended the trip in a fairly sombre state.

"On the plane home, I asked the coaches for some critical analysis. Then I went back to Saracens and talked it through with the club coach, Mark Evans, who has always been brilliant to me. He told me what I needed to do to produce consistent performances of an acceptable standard and I've been working on it ever since."

As the Scots are likely to discover to their intense frustration if they fall back on tried and trusted disruptive practices in an attempt to give the new boy the hurry-up, Hill is not the sort to lose his rag. On the contrary, he takes a mature and diagnostic approach to his rugby. Coolly dismissive of the hyperbole that dominates the build-up to a big match, he is a paragon of shrewd common sense.

His choice of Saracens over a phalanx of more obviously alluring clubs was illustrative of his calculating attitude towards the game. "They had just been relegated and had lost a whole back row to rival clubs - Eric Peters went to Bath, Justyn Cassell to Quins and Chris Tarbuck to Leicester - and I figured that it would be better to get first-team experience in the second division rather play second-team stuff in the first.

"Now, of course, things are changing at Sarries and we're looking better than ever before. Nigel Wray has pumped in the money, the Lynaghs and Pienaars are bringing all their vast experience to bear and we're no longer a poor club losing all our good players to everyone else."

But when the point is made that, without Wray's money, Saracens would have remained the paupers of London rugby, icy realism breaks through once more. "Under those circumstances," says Hill, unruffled and unapologetic, "it might have been right to leave."

At almost 6ft 3in and 16st, Hill's physical dimensions give him a clear advantage over the under-sized and occasionally over-matched Back, the other specialist open-side in the Test squad. Yet the weights and measures issue leaves him cold; for Hill, only pace is sacrosanct.

"My weight has been up and down - my brother Tim plays prop for Portsmouth and is very obviously of front-row stock, and as I've been a touch too round myself at times in the past, I'll have to keep an eye on what could easily be a family tendency to put it on in the wrong places. But the position is all about speed and I'm happy with that aspect of my game."

England's very public anxiety about the lack of balance in their back row means that the weight of expectation on Hill can be measured in tons rather than pounds and ounces. He is, after all, being talked about as the new Peter Winterbottom.

"Sure, I'd love to emulate Winters, a player whose achievements in an England shirt demand respect and admiration. But it's a game-by-game thing, isn't it? I don't want this to be a fly-by-night experience and the only way to ensure that I'm still in the side a fortnight on Saturday is to concentrate on the 80 minutes in front of me."

Who knows? A good performance against the Scots might persuade Mrs Hill of Salisbury that all the hassle of the last 10 days was worth it after all.