As a Saracen in the late Nineties, I was lucky enough to play with some of the great names of the game. In truth, I was a kid among men, and I was there primarily because my salary was so low that it would now qualify as illegal. I didn't mind; to be honest, I couldn't believe they were paying me at all. I was like a competition winner, in that I was the bloke running around with Tim Horan and Francois Pienaar and dropping every other pass that was thrown at me.
Yet despite all of these sporting behemoths being in attendance, they weren't the first men to be inked on to the teamsheet on Wednesday morning. All of them were astonishingly good and worthy of their profile within the game, but it was a man altogether less talked about who was deemed most valuable.
Richard Hill was by no means unappreciated – 73 England caps and a World Cup showed that – but he still managed to fly under the radar for years. I expect he was the sort of player that other men in his position initially resented for being selected ahead of them. Then they would play against him and they would get it.
I recall playing with Hilly when he missed a tackle that led to a try. He was not disappointed, he was wounded. I honestly can't remember it happening again, and I played with him over 100 times. I also read a newspaper report which declared him "anonymous". On the following Monday we received the usual page of statistics. Hilly had made over 20 tackles and missed none.
I think England might well have a new man of the shadows. I am not loading an almost unbearable pressure on the shoulders of someone who never wanted it anyway, but I do think that Geoff Parling, England's second-row incumbent, shows all the hallmarks of becoming another undercover achiever. He played in all three summer Tests against the Springboks and was barely mentioned. I thought he was outstanding.
Parling's strengths appear to resemble those that made Hill such a force. While every now and then he does do something remarkable, his wont seems more to do with intelligence and graft. Having played and trained alongside him, I know what he brings to the line-out which, arguably, is his most important role. He arrives at a line-out having done a huge amount of exacting research and turns all of that into, well, into English.
His greatest asset here, I have always thought, is his ability to make something so complex and variable so simple. Try giving a prop-forward seven different variations on the same instruction just seconds after he has been knocking in scrums for fun and he will, almost without exception, lose the plot, or at least be a nanosecond behind it. Spend some time learning how he moves, reacts and behaves and give him one or two blindingly basic calls to remember and he will become the strongest lifter in the team. Surprisingly few line-out experts manage to make it simple, instead offering up mountains of information as a challenge. Steve Borthwick was – and is – a master, and Parling is not far off.
No second-row survives a week at Leicester if he cannot scrummage. I have bent over in front of him, and he can push. This is key, as so often the man charged with running the aerial battle is a beanpole and often – not always – this means that he gives a bit away in the tight phases. Parling is not an ogre of a man, but he does not arrive at the gorillas' convention with survival on his mind.
With the hit machine that is Courtney Lawes now fit again, competition for jerseys just got tougher. As a rule, one lock will be the bosh man and one will be the brains behind securing ball from the line-out. In Mouritz Botha and Lawes, England have two brutes but they would, I imagine, rather leave the choreography to someone else. Playing them together, while punishing for the opposition in phase play, might leave the team exposed at the line-out.
The usual answer is to pair a banger with a thinker. England are lucky that, in Parling, they have a man willing to spend hours studying his art and just as long lifting dumbbells. Do your homework, get the job done, go home. No fuss, no bother. Just like Hilly.