Richard Hill: Coming down from the mountain top
Today's domestic finale provides the last chance to see a true great in action. Chris Hewett hears how world-beating highs and desperate lows have not lessened the modest Saracen's love for his sport
Saturday 10 May 2008
The memory drifts back to a spring day in 1991 and a schools cup final at Twickenham, where the crowd was so sparse they might all have watched from the royal box. A collection of sweaty 18-year-olds from Stratford-upon-Avon just about prevailed over an equally sticky bunch from Salisbury by the thoroughly old-fashioned margin of 4-3, but in truth, the game had not been nearly so close as the score suggested – or even close at all. But for one individual, it might have been 40-3, or 400-3. His name? Richard Hill. His position? Anywhere and everywhere.
We spool on a few months to see Elwyn Price, a Welshman of indeterminate antiquity with a voice like a whisky-soaked eunuch, standing, alone and thoroughly hacked off, at the Memorial Ground bar. He had spent the best part of a year courting Hill on behalf of the Bristol club, for whom he worked as occasional coach and full-time talent-spotter, and had just received some desperate news. "The bastard," he spluttered. "He's going to bloody London. The best player I've seen in years, and he's going to..." Elwyn being Elwyn, he could not bring himself to repeat the profanity – London, that is, not bloody.
If Price was among the first to identify the teenager as "the best", he suspected he would not be the last. And so it came to pass. Hill grew into a player for all the ages: the finest blind-side flanker in the sport; the only conceivable challenger to the All Black maestro Michael Jones as the most versatile loose forward of his generation; and the holiest member of England's holy trinity – the World Cup-winning back-row partnership he formed with Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio. Whenever he took the field, be it in a Premiership fixture for Saracens or in a Test match for the British and Irish Lions, he was the fixed point, the cement between the bricks, the base shade of grey in the coat of many colours.
Today at Milton Keynes, of all places in Christendom, it comes to an end, one last time. Hill has been retired by other people on any number of occasions, generally as a result of the ligament issues that have left him with heavily restricted movement in his right knee and a limp he fears will prove permanent. This afternoon, he is retiring himself. He would rather have done the deed at Vicarage Road, where his beloved Saracens have played their rugby for virtually the whole of the professional era, but events and pedants conspired against him. He will perform at Stadium MK once, and once only.
Funnily enough, Saracens are playing Bristol. "It should have been the natural club for me," Hill acknowledged this week, to the faint strains of Elwyn spinning in his grave. "Or maybe Bath, which is even closer to Salisbury. I trained with them both, and I dimly remember playing a couple of games for Bristol Under-21s. But there was no money in the sport then, and having slogged and stumbled through my A levels I had to think about college. Bath offered me nothing in that direction while Bristol came up with one course: environmental quality and resource management. I didn't know whether they wanted me to be a binman or a gypsy. There was a lot more opportunity in London, so off I went."
He found himself studying at what is now Brunel University, and sharing accommodation with the Saracens back Andy Lee. The club had just been relegated from the elite division of the old Courage League and their high-calibre back row had jumped ship. Hill caught the whiff of an opportunity.
"I played a friendly against Wasps and on the strength of that was invited on a pre-season tour of Scotland," he recalled. "My first thought was that I needed to earn some money for my second year at college, and if it hadn't been for my parents' support and generosity, I might not have gone." But go he did. And he stayed, for the duration: 15 years, 300 games (give or take), blood and sweat by the bucketload, the occasional tear.
If the one-club man is not quite extinct – Dallaglio will end where he started, at Wasps; Jonny Wilkinson has stuck with Newcastle through thin and thinner; it will be surprising indeed if Charlie Hodgson leaves Sale or Andy Hazell turns his back on Gloucester – professionalism has turned Hill into a rarity. For well over a decade, every coach in England has coveted his special brand of all-purpose rugby. Given that Saracens have had their fair share of troubles, was he never tempted to move on?
"Not really," he replied. "I suppose the biggest temptation was Wigan, who offered me a shot at rugby league in late '94. Union was still amateur, while they were the stand-out team in a professional sport. I thought about it before knocking it back, and I have no regrets. The thing is, I love the sport I play. The coaches in my early years instilled what I call the enjoyment factor, and it's never diminished. You don't stay in a game for the best part of three decades if there's no enjoyment at the heart of it, do you?
"And anyway, once professionalism kicked in, you could feel the sport developing at this incredible pace. When I look at the film of my first Lions tour, to South Africa in 1997, and see the way we were tackling ... to be honest with you, I'm embarrassed. It's totally different now – far more physical, far more demanding. We beat the Springboks in that series, but as a rugby nation they still set standards we knew nothing about. If you asked me to name the toughest back row I ever played against, my response would be: 'Any combination of South Africans.'
"I can remember Francois Pienaar turning up at Saracens, not long after he'd led the Boks to the  World Cup. In terms of size and strength, of body composition, he was another species. I sat there with my old colleague Tony Diprose and we both said: 'Christ, we're not quite up to this bloke's level.'"
Diprose, that most gifted of footballing No 8s, would fall out spectacularly with Pienaar and push off to Harlequins, leaving Hill to mourn the loss of his most familiar and dependable foil. The Saracens back row has never been quite the same. So it is with England, who are still attempting, and still failing, to replace the individual dynamism and collective authority lost to them when the World Cup-winning trio disbanded.
Dallaglio, who had a streak of the West End wide boy about him, was a regular blip on the radar of the public prints; Back was a chippy sort who liked to make his views known to anyone prepared to listen. Hill, by contrast, was a low-profile titan. One famous story illustrates the point. When, after a Lions tour, a couple of friends jumped a queue for a nightclub by pretending to be Martin Johnson and Rob Howley, Hill was stopped at the door by a bouncer. "I'm Richard Hill," he explained. "Never heard of you," came the reply, "but if you're with those two, I'd better let you in."
After a brief period of reflection, Hill identified that England unit as the optimum. "It certainly developed into the most successful of the back rows I played in," he said. "But at the start, people didn't give us much chance of making anything of it. I was very inexperienced at international level, while Neil was considered too small. Big was beautiful in those days – it was one of the reasons I moved from No 8, where I'd played all my schools rugby, to the open-side flank. When I shifted again, to the blind-side flank, I knew I'd have to tighten up my game to survive. Some would argue I tightened it too much."
Some, but not many. There have been precious few back rows over the last 30 years that bear comparison with the holy trinity, but those who can reasonably be mentioned in the same breath – the French unit of the mid-1970s and the New Zealand trio that drove the All Blacks to their one world title in 1987 – had their quiet, ultra-reliable paragons of efficiency: Jean-Claude Skrela in the first instance, Alan Whetton in the second. Skrela laid the foundations on which Jean-Pierre Bastiat and Jean-Pierre Rives constructed their inimitable games; Whetton provided a perfect platform for Wayne Shelford and the freakishly talented Jones.
Hill was an English Whetton and an English Jones at one and the same time – an achievement that beggared belief then and continues to beggar it now. There have been accolades by the dozen, tributes by the gross, and he deserves every last kind word that will continue to come his way. After all, it is not everyone who suffers two career-ending knee injuries, yet refuses to allow either of them to end his career. "I didn't feel as though I wanted to retire, so I carried on," he explained, after his final training session on Wednesday.
Perhaps Kyran Bracken, the scrum-half who played alongside him so often for Saracens and England, came closest to summing up Hill's value to the rugby cause. "When I injured my back during the World Cup in 2003, Clive Woodward gave me three days to get fit," he said. "When Richard injured his hamstring, he was given four weeks."
Bracken was a fine player, but Woodward knew he could be replaced. Hill was an extraordinary player, and irreplaceable.
Hill the conquering hero: Life at the summit of the game
*RICHARD HILL MBE
Born 23 May 1973, Dormansland, Surrey
Height 6ft 2in
To 1993 Salisbury
287 games, 110 points
Debut v Scotland, 1997
71 caps, 12 tries
1997, 2001, 2005 British & Irish Lions; 5 caps
1997 Victorious Lions tour to South Africa
1998 Tetley's Bitter Cup
2003 World Cup winner.
*Effective and aggressive style of play has made him one of the most respected players in world rugby. Indeed, he was the only player never dropped during Clive Woodward's England reign. His absence through injury from games with South Africa, Samoa and Wales in the early stages of the 2003 World Cup was recognised as one of the main reasons why England looked far from the world-beaters they would become by defeating Australia. His return saw England overcome France 24-7 in a rain-soaked semi-final, in which he played a vital role in coping with the much-vaunted French back row. He also played a major role in the XV that lifted the Webb Ellis Cup on a famous night in Sydney.
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