Rugby Union: Hull attacks new career opportunity: A perfect role model for all disadvantaged South Africans makes his England debut. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
IF THERE is a single joy to be found on this not especially joyful England tour it is that in the new South Africa of all places Paul Hull, the son of parents from St Kitts and Jamaica, should be the Englishman to quicken the blood. A first cap against the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld this afternoon is the dashing full-back's well-deserved reward.

Cpl Hull of the Royal Air Force fitness-tests air commodores in his job as physical-training instructor at RAF Innsworth, Gloucester. He also happens to be as perfect a role- model as there could be for the not so high-and-mighty, the countless disadvantaged black kids who could, if only they could be like him, one day take this country's rugby by storm.

His selection against Transvaal last Saturday rather than in the midweek match in Kimberley was a plain enough statement of selectorial thinking but Hull, perhaps more than anyone on tour, is not one to take anything for granted. His own capricious rugby history has seen to that.

He was not even in the tour party when the choice was made. But England full-backs have been dropping like flies in the Kalahari and on merit, on the strength of three conspicuous performances in South Africa, Hull will play in the first Test. 'It is an honour beyond compare - and the result of a lot of hard work,' he said.

For Hull the past four years have been a protracted exercise in rehabilitation after a calamitous start to his England career as an outside- half on the ill-fated tour to Argentina in 1990. Just 22, he never looked like making the Test side and was not the only young player who appeared to sink without trace once it was all over.

In a perverse way, he had only himself to blame - which is to say that if he had not performed so spectacularly well as a makeshift stand-off in the England Under-21 side who routed Romania in 90-degree heat in 1989, his representative career might well have continued its steady early progress.

Hull had begun his career with Bristol as a centre and was put on the wing in Bucharest when Phil de Glanville and Gavin Thompson were the preferred pairing. After 25 minutes David Pears was injured and Hull went on to play the pivotal role in England's half-century victory.

'When I first played outside- half for an England team I hadn't played senior rugby there at all,' he said. 'I was chucked in at the deep end when I was sent to Argentina and, pleased as I was at the time, I didn't have the history in the position or the experience of playing there week-in week-out to do myself justice.

'I came back feeling very down. I was very, very disappointed and disillusioned. For the year that followed the tour I was playing in various positions - most of the games I played were on the wing - and I felt I'd blown my England chance.'

But instead of moping Hull pulled himself together by analysing what had gone wrong and what he had to do to put it right: work out which was his best position and stick with it. So the centre-turned- stand-off-turned-wing turned into a full-back after Jon Webb had left Bristol for Bath and as soon as he had established his new position he never looked back.

'A few clubs had been on to me to come and play fly-half or centre and I nearly left Bristol. I was burdened with being versatile, with being picked for sides as a utility back, so if there was a weakness somewhere that would be where I was picked. In the middle of the 91-92 season I made the decision and in about half a season I had learned the ins and outs of the position.'

The result has been seen in Hull's - and his club's - play, culminating in Bristol's best finish (fourth) in the Courage Championship last season and Hull's place on this tour. With consistency has come confidence and here in South Africa not only has his defence been unfailingly solid but he has sometimes looked the only England player capable of leading a Transvaal-type counter- attack.

'He is a young man who has more than fulfilled our expectations,' Jack Rowell said - which from anyone else might be damning with faint praise but from the England manager is due acclaim for a splendid achievement. After all, Hull had made the party only when Ian Hunter became the first injury withdrawal and became the prospective first choice only when Pears - the boy David again - followed Hunter out of the tour.

'I suppose I wasn't surprised not to be picked as a full-back for this tour but I was disappointed they didn't go for me as a utility back,' Hull said. It was a big lift for me when I took Ian's place because it meant I had gone up from No 4 to No 3 in the full-back pecking-order and I knew sound performances in all the games I was selected for would consolidate my position.

'I realised I would start off in the midweek side but I was quite confident that if I played well I would be pushing for a Test place. I've been pleased with my performances here, even if it has mainly been in a defensive role. My great asset is really attacking but it's good that the management can see I can catch the high balls and make the tackles and do all the mundane jobs of a full-back.'

This has closely resembled the way Hull has had to play for Bristol - which has the merit of familiarity even if it is emphatically not his preference. 'We've tended to play a rather tight game but I try to look for open spaces and come into the line. I try to get into spaces, try to run at different angles rather than into the man,' he said. Predictable, as they are, England could do with a few more like him.

(Photograph omitted)

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