Uphill struggle for the new master of Kingsholm

Richard Hill is determined to prove his worth at one of rugby union's most fiercely independent clubs. Steve Bale reports
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The Independent Online
Gloucester have such an ugly reputation (no offence, I mean this purely in terms of the gnarled features of some of the club's luminaries) that perhaps the metaphor of a Prince Charming awakening a sleeping beauty with a peck on the cheek is not quite right for Richard Hill's arrival at Kingsholm this week as director of coaching.

Still, it is a pleasantly ironic image. As Hill knows full well, at one time it would have been unthinkable for Gloucester, the most proudly parochial of rugby institutions, to welcome a man of Bath, even if he is England's most-capped scrum-half, to take command of their playing fortunes. And to pay him for it, for heaven's sake.

I will show you what I mean. Peter Butler, a former England full-back, once told me in the Kingsholm press box what Gloucester folk thought of Bath. "Here," he said, "Bath have a reputation as squealers." To emphasise his point, Butler spat out the last word like a blob of offending mucus.

True, Keith Richardson did go from Bath to play for and eventually coach Gloucester, but then he was from Northumberland and could hardly said to have been as steeped in West Country rugby lore as Hill. And, lest we forget, the last time Gloucester had any pretensions - when they reached the 1990 cup final - Hill was on the other side and Bath won 48-6.

At the tender age of 35, he has a job on his hands. Relief may have been provided by last Saturday's win at West Hartlepool after defeats by Sale and Bath but Leicester are tomorrow's visitors to Kingsholm and Hill is uncomfortably conscious that Gloucester remain among many observers' prime candidates for relegation.

His long time at Bath having ended acrimoniously with his resignation as the chairman of selectors earlier this month, Hill is experiencing a curious sense of renewal. "In my time with Bath I wouldn't ever have given any thought to any other club, let alone Gloucester," he said.

"I didn't want to leave Bath but with no role for me there I had to find some alternative and, traumatic though it was, it did force me to take a wider look at the game. So when Mike Teague proposed that I come to Gloucester I had already made the mental jump away from Bath and, anyway, he was very persuasive."

Teague, Gloucester's team manager, was one of Hill's comrades-in-arms during England's epic 1991 World Cup campaign and more of a man of the rugby world than has been customary at Kingsholm, and things had already begun to move. Barrie Corless's appointment as coaching director after his successful years at Northampton was to culminate in an unpleasant parting of the ways but it was a statement of intent. Mike Coley, formerly the Rugby Football Union's marketing manager, was brought in as chief executive during the summer.

"I realise that, with Barrie Corless already having been here, I have to produce," Hill said. "Because if it doesn't work this time, people will become totally disillusioned. But I'd like to think I'm already dispelling the suspicions people here may have."

He began by retaining the Gloucester coaches, Viv Woolley and Peter Kingston, but it will be for them to put into practice the strategy and tactics their new master lays down. At the same time it will be for Hill to augment the best of local rugby, the fabled nursery of the Gloucester Combination clubs, by casting the recruitment net far wider.

In this context, it is worth recording that in that 1990 cup final, 10 of the Gloucester team were born in the city and four of the other five were brought up there. This was the club's rightful pride but also ultimately its fall in an era of easy communications and frantic recruitment by all their rivals as rugby was accelerating towards professionalism.

"You can't discard local talent, because the passion these players have and their unshakeable commitment to Gloucester are formidable assets," Hill said. "There is a fantastic rugby culture in Gloucester, unequalled anywhere in England, and I appreciate I need to exploit that to the full. But on its own it's not enough."

Hill will divide his time between Gloucester and his continuing, though henceforth part-time, job as an independent financial adviser in Bristol. He is also assistant coach of England A, the chief coach being none other than the same Keith Richardson who preceded him at Kingsholm.

Hence Hill's need, as soon as he had terminated his association with Bath, to find an alternative that could assist him in his entirely proper ambition. "If I want to coach at representative level, then I have to have regular experience of coaching at a top club. But it's going to work both ways: I'm full of ideas to take Gloucester forward and I've no doubt whatsoever that this club - one of the greatest in the land, don't forget - has the capacity to regain its former eminence."

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