'If you ease off too much, you tend to get caught'

Worcester head coach Richard Hill tells Chris Hewett that there is no room for complacency as the promotion play-offs beckon

It was this time last year that Bristol, widely expected to make an immediate return to the Premiership after another of their all-too-regular flirtations with second-tier rugby, found themselves being stripped bare by Exeter, whose clever planning for the play-off stage of the campaign allowed them to beat their West Country rivals home and away just when it mattered most.

Worcester, the current promotion "certainties", have no intention of being mugged in the same way. "There were lessons to be learnt from what happened to Bristol," says Richard Hill, the head coach at Sixways. "Believe me, we've learnt them."

Hill is by no means complacent: of all the professional coaches earning a crust from the game in these islands, he is the least prone to the sins of presumption, arrogance and smug self-satisfaction. Indeed, he is approaching the remaining 33 days of the season as a spirited spinster might approach a speed-dating session at the local boozer – a tingle of excitement, counterbalanced by a profound sense of caution – and with good reason.

Assuming Worcester make the final by beating either Bedford or Doncaster in a home semi, as they undoubtedly should, they will find themselves facing Cornish Pirates or London Welsh over two legs. The Pirates won at Sixways in a league match back in October, and lost the return in Penzance by the grand total of three points. And the Exiles? We'll let the man himself talk us through that one.

"We played them in London last weekend and won 22-20," he says. "In actual fact, I was quite pleased with some aspects of our game. But they're a dangerous side, particularly in the back division, and like everyone else in the league, they've thought long and hard about how best to counter us. That's the thing with starting a competition as clear favourites: each week, you come up against a team who have spent a hell of a lot of time trying to work you out. We've played London Welsh twice in the league and twice more in the play-offs. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that we'll play them twice more before this is over.

"There's a lot of familiarity there, and that can make life difficult – especially when it's knock-out rugby and the adrenaline is pumping, there's not an inch of space anywhere on the field, and no one misses a tackle."

The former England captain does not waste too much nervous energy thinking about this possibility, but he is fully aware of the potential irony of Worcester losing in the final to opponents whose facilities are so far short of Premiership criteria, they have not even requested an audit ahead of a promotion application. Both the Pirates and London Welsh fall into this category. Should the worst come to the worst for Worcester – if no one goes up and the top flight remains embarrassingly intact – it will serve the Rugby Football Union right for foisting such a half-arsed, ill-considered format on the Second Division clubs in the first place. "It's a strange competition," Hill acknowledges, with extreme diplomacy.

Today, Worcester face Bristol in one last play-off game before the semi-final stage, for which they qualified with matches to spare. Is he resting players for the more meaningful contests to come? Not a bit of it. Indeed, he has made only two changes to the strong side he fielded last weekend, recalling the Tongan hooker Aleki Lutui – one of the outstanding front-rowers at the last World Cup – and an All Black lock in the elongated shape of Greg Rawlinson. He could not have made a clearer statement of intent had he sent a note to Bristol saying: "We're coming to get you."

The fact that Hill's previous job in English rugby was at Bristol, who dispensed with his services in a particularly ruthless and unseemly manner, has nothing to do with his selection policy. He is a long way past that episode now and is reluctant to revisit it. His thinking ahead of today's match has more to do with preparations for what lies ahead.

"Last season, Bristol made the mistake of tapering off, just when Exeter were doing the opposite," he explains. "If you ease off too much at the wrong time, you tend to get caught... When you look at what Exeter did last year, it was well thought through. They took players out of the first team midway through the league campaign, worked them in the gym and made sure they were well conditioned for the run-in. Yes, they lost three or four games because of it, but as the expectation on them wasn't huge, I'm not sure it mattered that much, even to their board. We've never been in that position. We set our stall out last summer, saying that we intended to go straight back up into the Premiership. Once we did that, we couldn't hide from it. I've had to pick a side to win every game, all the way along. We've lost once in this competition, and that was bad enough. If we'd lost four on the trot, I'd have had Cecil asking me what was going on."

By Cecil, he meant the club's principal benefactor and indefatigable chairman, Cecil Duckworth, who has not only spent many years and untold millions turning Sixways into one of the best-equipped stadiums in English rugby, but made it possible for Worcester to retain most of the leading players who might have been tempted to jump ship when they heard the dread tolling of the relegation bell. He also persuaded Hill to cut short a planned three-year coaching stint in France – after the unpleasantness of Bristol, he had resurfaced, very quietly, with Chalon-sur-Saône, a third-tier club from the Burgundy region – and handed him the keys to the West Midlands castle.

"This is the first time I've worked at a club operating on this kind of budget," says Hill, whose employment record includes spells with Gloucester, Harlequins, Ebbw Vale and Newport. "Recruitment for next season hasn't been too much of a problem – I started before Christmas and had it done by the end of February; 11 players out, 11 in – and the facilities here are second to none. We're also expecting some big crowds for our remaining home games. There's a lot of interest in this area, a lot of support.

"I'd genuinely committed myself to giving it a really good go in France, but when the chance of being part of this project came along, I knew it was right up my street. Different coaches have different ambitions, different needs. For me, the opportunity to start from scratch and build something up is very attractive. Worcester spent six years in the Premiership before my arrival, and never finished better than eighth.

"I'd like to think I can take them higher. During my time at Bristol, we managed a top-three finish. That was incredibly rewarding, and I'd love to do something similar here. But it may be that I lay the foundations and someone else carries on with the construction work. I signed for two years only, because I won't stay anywhere if I'm not doing a good job. It's the way I am."

Here's another example of the way Hill is. When he arrived at Sixways, he was surprised – not to say alarmed – at the lack of communication between the players and the support staff: the cooks, the cleaners, the people running the ticket office. "People in the squad didn't have the faintest idea who it was working on their behalf, and I was determined to change the culture," he says. "I made the players learn exactly who was who, by name. They were given cards containing all the information, and I tested them. Now, we have a meal together every other Monday. I like the idea of us all being in it together."

Haven't we heard that line before, somewhere? That's right: from the coalition government. Hill frowns, shakes his head, and says: "We're a bit more harmonious than them, I hope."

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape