Rugby Union: Path to Hull and back

Stephen Brenkley talks to the one-tour wonder itching to get back in the running
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The Independent Online
For a brief, heady period the rugby world was at Paul Hull's feet. He was the England full-back, the international arena looked his natural home, critics and fans drooled their appreciation.

His breakthrough was immediate. On England's tour to South Africa in the summer of 1994, his calmness under pressure was exemplary, helping his country to draw the two-Test series. But then in the fourth match of what was surely destined to be a long and illustrious career he was injured. Hull left the field that December day against Canada at Twickenham that same year and has never returned.

At first it was the injury which ruled him out of consideration and then, though it hardly seemed fair, it was presumably felt that the squad picked in his absence had gelled without him.

He kept plugging away but despite an A tour the senior team's changing- room door has remained resolutely shut to him. Nobody in the game disputed that he was desperately unlucky to be overlooked but this season, for Bristol, his form has dipped. He is aware that the rewards, both spiritual and material, of an international career could now pass him by.

"I think back all the time to those days in the England side," he said. "I remember that day against Canada and I wonder if it would have been better if I hadn't played or not been picked for that one. I can't help thinking about it.

"I missed out on the World Cup and was determined to come back last season. Everybody said my best way back was if I became a specialist kicker. I felt under tremendous pressure and if I missed a kick or two people were quick to say I hadn't got what it takes. It can really affect you that. Then after a bit I stopped kicking regularly."

Hull has not given up on playing for England again and at 28 still has years ahead of him. He also remains a thrustful, creative full-back and with exceptional ball control. But he senses, too, that he has moved further back in a queue now headed by Tim Stimpson, who is receiving Hull-like reviews.

"I haven't been consistent this year and nor has the team," he said. "That's what I've got to concentrate on now, my form and Bristol's performances. If both of us live up to potential then that's my chance of getting back into the England squad." He did not sound either entirely confident or convinced.

Of the England team which played against Canada in Hull's last match so far slightly more than two years ago only five survive for next week's Calcutta Cup match. Hull may take heart from the fact that one of the quintet, Tony Underwood, has had to force his way back in.

He likes the new regime of professional rugby. Last April he left the RAF after 10 years and with Bristol's other professionals now does two training sessions a day. All the full-timers, he said, were definitely stronger with more weight and running routines.

Perhaps after nine years a move might have helped but he rejected approaches from two ambitious second division clubs because of his affection for Bristol and his respect for their coach, Alan Davies.

Hull is not jealous of the success of others, but rightly points to his own versatility as an all-round attacking player. It would be a shame if a player of whom such great deeds were expected were denied the chance to fulfil them.