Richard Hill: Master class

During his stellar playing career, Richard Hill's work ethic and technical excellence were unsurpassed. Now he is instilling the same values in the next generation at Saracens
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Richard Hill was the ultimate team player. Utterly selfless, totally committed, technically outstanding and fiercely competitive, the flanker has long since etched his name into the pantheon of all-time England greats.

You only have to turn up to a Saracens game to witness at first hand the affection in which he is still held by the fans of a club he served steadfastly for 15 years.

For it is becoming something of a ritual at Vicarage Road for the crowd to rise to their feet, almost as one, to applaud the now suited rather than booted Hill as he walks around the pitch to take a seat near the players' tunnel.

It says everything about the man that he cringes with embarrassment at the suggestion he is being hero-worshipped - which of course he is.

Hill has now entered a new phase of his life.

His battered and bruised body eventually said enough was enough at the end of last season. Playing virtually on one leg after a long running battle with a chronic knee condition, Hill managed one last show of defiance to inspire Saracens to the edge of history before Alan Gaffney's team were cut down in the Heineken Cup semi-final by the eventual champions Munster.

He took an extended break from all things rugby over the summer before returning to the club at which he had set standards during his playing career that few came close to matching.

"Richard Hill was consistently the most consistent rugby player I have ever played with," said his former captain and fellow World Cup winner Martin Johnson.

"But if you say that, people imagine a guy who was very steady. Richard was a guy who was performing at a world class level quicker than anyone else and he continued at that level for his entire career.

"He was playing right at the top level every time he played. He was outstanding in that regard."

That, from Johnson, is high praise indeed.

Over an 11-year period that saw him earn 71 England caps, Hill was the only player never to be dropped by Sir Clive Woodward.

Matt Dawson described him as "unquestionably the greatest player ever to play for England".

So it's fair to say Hill, who was equally comfortable playing in any of the three back row positions, set his standards pretty high.

And it is that ethic of hard work, technical excellence and pride in the shirt that Hill, now 35 years old, is trying to instil into Saracens' next generation of exciting youngsters in a mentoring scheme devised by himself, Gaffney and club owner Nigel Wray.

He spends two days a week helping to grow Saracens' commercial arm, while the rest of his time is devoted to the likes of Andy Saull and Alex Goode, who are able to tap into his vast banks of experience and understanding of what it takes to reach the very pinnacle of the sport.

Hill explains: "I'd like to think what I do goes beyond going for a cup of tea with them.

"The idea is to give them a clear idea of professionalism, the commitment it entails, and what they need to do and where they need to be.

"It is both lifestyle coaching and technical coaching. There's a technical viewing of the match where I go through it, making comments on each of their performance in terms of technicalities.

"With some I am able to go into more depth than others. I wouldn't pretend I could teach Alex Goode everything about fly-half play or a hooker like Jamie George, whose my youngest, about the technicalities of throwing or scrummaging.

"There are far better people involved in the squad who can do that. It's my job to ensure they are constantly being updated and informed about their performances."

The humility that Hill displays in talking about the youngsters explains why it is impossible to find anybody in the game who has a bad word to say about him.

It is also a worthy lesson for any aspiring young professional that rugby still values the principle of keeping your feet on the ground.

While Hill has been adapting to the different challenges of leading by example off the field rather than on it, he admits to have taken a keen interest in the progress of his former captain.

Johnson's elevation to England team manager may have raised a few eyebrows among directors of rugby around the country, but it came as no surprise to Hill.

Speaking at the launch of Steve Thompson's benefit year, Hill said: "The thing people forget is that Johnno had a long time out of the game. He didn't rush into anything. He had the ambassadorial roles that he had and that's the route he chose. In a way he came out of the cold. He wasn't involved in mentoring, coaching or managing anything like that.

"But I wasn't at all surprised he jumped straight in. If there's one thing you can say about Johnno it is that he's got his head screwed on and is very articulate. He knows what he wants from a team and he definitely has the respect you want.

"I would go as far as to say I would be disgusted if there was one person in that enlarged England squad who had a bad word to say about the guy and what he will try to achieve again."

Hill dismisses the possibility of joining Johnson any time soon on England's coaching staff, preferring instead to work his way slowly up the ladder rather than parachute in from the top.

Saracens' encouraging start to the season under the guidance of former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones has suggested bright things ahead for the perennial underachievers.

Although we've said that before haven't we?

At the moment, Hill is content to watch and learn from Jones. "Eddie has an incredible work ethic," he said. "I get in to the office around 7.15am and not once have I beaten him in.

"Usually he has checked his emails and been to the gym before I even arrive. That makes for a very challenging environment to work in, in the best sense. You have to be on your toes when your boss is as sharp as he is. The players are certainly learning from him."

Not just from him, Richard.

This story was sourced from International Rugby News