Hill fires Bristol's revival with rage for perfection

The former England captain talks to Chris Hewett about his side's Premiership potential and today's resumption of an old rivalry in the Powergen Cup at Gloucester

Richard Hill says he is "extremely serious" about his coaching, but then he has never been less than serious about anything to do with the game of rugby union. As a scrum-half, his approach to personal preparation bordered on the fanatical. Much to the horror of more convivial Bath clubmates like Stuart Barnes and Gareth Chilcott, he would, on a daily basis, run further than Forrest Gump, lift more heavy weights than a fleet of forklift truck drivers and throw out enough passes to fill an entire series of
Mastermind. And when he was asked to lead his country into battle, he took that seriously as well. A little too seriously, as his disciplinary record indicates.

Richard Hill says he is "extremely serious" about his coaching, but then he has never been less than serious about anything to do with the game of rugby union. As a scrum-half, his approach to personal preparation bordered on the fanatical. Much to the horror of more convivial Bath clubmates like Stuart Barnes and Gareth Chilcott, he would, on a daily basis, run further than Forrest Gump, lift more heavy weights than a fleet of forklift truck drivers and throw out enough passes to fill an entire series of Mastermind. And when he was asked to lead his country into battle, he took that seriously as well. A little too seriously, as his disciplinary record indicates.

Hill has mellowed in the 18 years since he was stripped of the England captaincy after presiding over the fistic excesses of the 1987 Five Nations Championship meeting with Wales in Cardiff, but it would be a grave error to think for a second that he no longer cares as passionately as he once did. He may have opted for a quiet spell in the shadows of the professional game after a painful departure from his job as Gloucester's director of rugby in 1999, but the fires of perfectionism are still blazing away in his soul. "I'm doing my Level Five coaching as we speak," he said this week, proudly. As no one has ever risen higher than Level Four, it was something to be proud about.

"Actually, it's bloody hard work," he continued. "There are a few of us on the course: Gary Gold [of London Irish], Phil Davies [of Leeds] and Joe Lydon [the England backs coach], and we're all finding it very intense. Lots of modules, lots of assignments, lots of burning the midnight oil. But it's worth it. I want to be as good as I can be, and there is a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that I'm a far better coach than I was 10 years ago."

The fruits of that long commitment to excellence are now being enjoyed by Bristol, the club Hill and his colleagues enjoyed beating more than any other during the trophy-laden years of Bath's golden decade, which began in the mid-1980s and ended the moment professionalism impacted on the domestic game in England. "You know, before every West Country derby we used to say to ourselves: 'If Bristol ever get it right off the field, they'll be really dangerous'," he recalled this week as he held court at Bristol University's wonderfully equipped sports complex at Coombe Dingle. "I'd like to think that after all this time, the club is now getting it absolutely right. I'm delighted to be a part of it."

Bristol visit Hill's old operational base at Gloucester in this afternoon's Powergen Cup quarter-final - a resumption of ancient rivalries that has generated phenomenal interest at the Kingsholm ticket office. More importantly, they are heavily favoured to win the National Division One title this season. Should they meet expectations, they will return to the Premiership with two football stadiums at their disposal - Bristol City's Ashton Gate, as well as their long-standing home at the Memorial Ground, now used by Bristol Rovers - and a sound financial base from which to strengthen an already useful squad of full-time professionals. They will not mismanage themselves into oblivion, as they did in the mid-1990s, and will not throw good money after bad on sporting mercenaries, as they did under the seat-of-the-pants ownership of the hugely enthusiastic but wholly unpredictable Malcolm Pearce.

At least, they think they will return to the Premiership. "We're moving forward at the correct pace. We've had positive feedback from our provisional audit in December and we're perfectly happy that we'll meet the promotion criteria," confirmed John Portch, the chief executive, this week. "Should we win our division, the Premiership clubs will have to find some other reason not to admit us. Eighteen months ago, promotion did not feature in our planning. But we're now a year ahead of ourselves in terms of our development and there is a burning desire here to return to the Premiership next season. Everything is being geared towards that end."

All of which is music to Hill's ears, for he has no intention of leaving Bristol in the short term, even though Bath are said to have tapped him up as their preferred replacement for John Connolly, the current head coach, who plans to return to his native Australia at the end of the campaign. "We held a team meeting on Wednesday to talk about our aims and ambitions as we approach this important stage of the season, and if you'd been a fly on the wall, you'd have been left in no doubt as to how much this group of players crave promotion," he said.

When Hill was driven out of Gloucester - "I can't say too much about that, except to say that it came as a bit of a shock, midway through the season," - he decided enough was enough. He wanted to coach, but not at the expense of his family life. "I'd been doing everything at Kingsholm, from negotiating the contracts to sorting out the washing powder. It was bloody stressful, that's for sure. As I had a young family to think about as well, it got on top of me. I decided that I wouldn't take on another job as head coach until the kids were at university.

"So I went on my travels, spending some time at Ebbw Vale and Harlequins, some time at Newport, all in an assistant coaching role. Now, I'm not one of life's natural assistants; when I see something that needs doing, I like to get on with it myself. But it suited me at the time, and I learned a good deal. When the Bristol job came up, I thought: 'The children are only a year away from college, it's local and I have the chance to build something from scratch'. So I accepted, and it's working out well.

"I have to say that the board has been brilliant in creating a positive, progressive atmosphere here. For example, we've successfully re-established the club's traditional links with the junior teams and schools in the city. That was always one of the Bristol's strengths, and when those roots were allowed to wither, it was extremely damaging. Let's face it, some of the management was not as good as it might have been at times. Certainly, a good deal of money was squandered. Now, we have sensible budgets in place, and a strong economic foundation as a result. We're focused on success, but we're also realistic."

Less than two years ago, as both Bristol and Bath were manning the barricades against the threat of relegation, there was only one subject on the West Country rugby agenda: the proposed merging of the two great rivals. Had Bristol secured their place in the Premiership at Bath's expense, the process would have been set in motion. Hill, once chairman of selectors at Bath, still struggles to come to terms with the fact that such heresy was ever considered.

"Rugby is a professional sport, yes, but there are some things that should never be allowed to happen," he said. "Come along to any Bristol game, and you'll see how grateful the supporters are that they still have a club to follow. Too often, the people who run rugby forget the importance of the local community, the very thing that keeps a club alive. I've worked in Wales, and while I recognise that regional rugby might be working to some extent, I mourn the fact that great sporting communities like Pontypridd have been stripped of their team. There is no top-class rugby in the Valleys now. It's terrible, really."

Happily, Bristol are still afloat - free, independent, in control of their own destiny. In the last round of the Powergen Cup, they took Wasps, the European champions, to extra time before giving best. Reinstated on account of the Londoners' fielding of an unregistered player, they must now head north to Castle Grim for an even greater test of preparedness for life among the élite. Can they hack it? Hill believes they have a puncher's chance, at least.

"In our current league, we get into bad habits," he said. "Bad habits against the Premiership boys equal a severe beating. Early on against Wasps, we gave slow ball to a static back line and were absolutely hammered by their blitz defence. We addressed it at half-time, and raised ourselves to their level. I'd like to think we're equipped to do something similar against Gloucester, and if we do, it will be a hell of a day out." He's looking forward to it, then. "Looking forward to it? I can't wait."

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