Rugby Union: Hill pushes on from Jurassic age of forwards

After his return from injury, the England flanker is more single- minded than ever.
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The Independent Online
DURING ENGLAND'S minor-key Centenary Test rehearsal against Queensland at Ballymore last weekend, Richard Hill made 16 tackles in the opening 40 minutes and rather less - three, to be exact - in the second 40.

Disgraceful, you may think; a clear case of a highly paid professional short-changing both his coach and public by doing half a job and taking the rest of the night off. It was no better, surely, than Pavarotti singing the first act of Tosca, waving his white handkerchief at the audience and catching the first cab back to his Tuscan vineyard.

Actually, it wasn't like that at all; the hoary old line about lies, damned lies and statistics was never closer to the bull's-eye. The truth of the matter is as follows: Hill wreaked so much havoc and caused so much unmitigated grief to the Reds' runners in the opening half that the Australians spent the remaining 50 per cent of the game avoiding him like the proverbial plague. If the Saracens flanker was operating in one defensive channel, the Queenslanders chose another in which to attack.

Whenever he covered across field towards the left touchline, his opponents changed both their minds and their angles and went right instead. By the end, they were like a bewildered collection of playground softies attempting to escape the school bully. Except Hill is no one's idea of a bully. Rather, he is a reflective soul, deeply serious about his rugby yet unfailingly polite and approachable.

"Some players wind themselves up before a game, others retreat into themselves," said Martin Johnson, the new England captain, this week. "Richard is one of the quiet ones. You never hear him shouting and hollering in the dressing- room; it simply isn't his way. But by the same yardstick, you never doubt him. You just know that he will give you 100 per cent on the field."

England's chances of beating the Wallabies in today's fascinating encounter at Stadium Australia are not entirely dependent on Hill's 100 per centism, but it is reasonable to suggest that they will struggle to win without a vintage contribution from, perhaps, the most versatile loose forward to emerge in Test rugby since the great Michael Jones finished strutting his multi-faceted stuff for the All Blacks. Hill did pretty much everything in the Lawrence Dallaglio era. Now, under Johnson, he does everything and a bit more.

"I suppose I've taken on a proportion of Lawrence's responsibilities," he agrees. "Lawrence was particularly good at carrying the ball up in midfield and setting up platforms from which to attack and I'm doing more of that in his absence, although Martin Corry [Dallaglio's successor at No 8] is more than capable in that department. Quite honestly, the best sides have moved away from the old regimentation. We're trying to break free of the situation where you have two or three designated runners; it's down to the whole pack to play some football, and over the next three months leading into the World Cup, we need to take a hard look at ourselves."

Hill is correct, as usual. Back in the Jurassic age of unbending loose- forward specialisation, the open-side flanker tried to decapitate the opposing outside-half, the blind-side flanker broke off the scrum and shored up the short side, and the No 8 jumped at the back of the line- out and corner-flagged in defence. The wonderful 1960s Springbok trio of Piet Greyling, Jan Ellis and Tommy Bedford were known as "the fetcher, the carrier and the thinker". Why? Because that is what they did. Nowadays, the class does all three and cooks dinner as well.

In one sense, Hill is fortunate to be doing anything at all, for the chronic back condition that cost him a cup-winner's medal with Saracens 13 months ago might easily have cost him a whole lot more. Hill's specialist warned him that despite the success of corrective surgery, a relapse could not be ruled out. "It was a delicate situation and I knew that my rehabilitation would be slow and painstaking. But I never once lost confidence in myself as a player. Saracens were superb; they never rushed me or tried to fast- track me in any way and if I wanted to pull out of something I wasn't sure of, then I pulled out.

"I can't say my back hasn't troubled me since I resumed in September, because on occasions it has. But the good news from my point of view is that the chances of a recurrence are diminishing all the time. The best medical advice was that any relapse would occur sooner rather than later and as the operation was well over a year ago and I've played a full season's rugby with all the demands that places on your body, I'm hopeful that I'm in the clear."

Hill openly admits his preference for the openside role currently performed by Neil Back, but he is perfectly philosophical about life in the No 6 shirt. Blindside is traditionally the least sexy of the three back-row positions: the masses raved about Jones and Wayne Shelford but seldom about Alan Whetton, they loved Jean-Pierre Rives and Jean-Pierre Bastiat but took Jean-Claude Skrela for granted, they still work themselves into a lather about Bobby Skinstad and Gary Teichmann but undervalue Rassis Erasmus. Does Hill feel like Bill Wyman compared to Back's Keith Richards?

"I've never actively sought a high profile, although it's always nice to receive acclaim for a decent effort," he says. "It just doesn't matter that much to me. What affects me is turning in a below-par performance; I can get very annoyed with myself when I come off the field knowing that I could and should have done certain things far better. That's part of the mental toughness you need to play at this level. I'm pretty obsessed with my fitness, especially maintaining the high aerobic base you need to get around the field for 80 minutes. But where it really counts is up there in your head."

Today, Hill pits his brand of single-mindedness against 15 representatives of the most single-minded sporting nation on earth. Steve Waugh, World Cup winning cricket captain and the original never-say-die hard case, intends to make a brief celebratory appearance on the Stadium Australia pitch before kick-off. Hill will not hear a word of Waugh's address as he goes through his solitary preparation in a quiet corner of England's dressing-room, but he will know exactly where he is coming from.