Lions Legend: Richard Hill

A Lions tourist on three occasions, Richard Hill's impact on the outcomes of the 1997, 2001 and 2005 Test series' should not be underestimated. [more]

Lions Legend: Richard Hill

A Lions tourist on three occasions, Richard Hill’s impact on the outcomes of the 1997, 2001 and 2005 Test series’ should not be underestimated.

In 1997, Hill was a fresh-faced flanker in his first season of international rugby. Despite his inexperience at the top of the world game, Hill was selected in the original touring party before impressing enough in the warm-up fixtures to earn a starting spot for the Test series against the world champion Springboks.

At just 24 years of age, Hill produced the kind of performances that would typify his career as the Lions took the Boks by storm in Cape Town and Durban.

Having helped Sir Ian McGeechan's men to a stunning series win with heroic performances in the first and second internationals, Hill sat out the final Test with injury as the Lions experienced their only defeat of the three-match contest.

In 2001, Hill was again a star performer in the comprehensive opening-Test victory over the Wallabies in Brisbane as the Lions produced one of the most-talked about displays of the modern era.

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Injury reared its ugly head once more, however, in what many onlookers regarded as one of the major turning points of the tour. With the Lions playing the better rugby in the first-half of the second Test in Melbourne, Hill was struck by an elbow from Australian centre Nathan Grey. The Saracens flanker failed to reappear for the second half and the Lions duly conceded 29 points in the next 40 minutes as they fell to a 35-14 defeat.

Hill's injury ruled him out of the decisive third Test and the Lions struggled without him. The tourists lost the final rubber and the series despite having looked so dominant during Hill's time on the field in Tests one and two.

Chris Hewett of The Independent summed up the impact of Hill's injury perfectly when he described the incident with Grey as the "single most significant moment of the 2001 Lions tour".

Hewett, one of the most-respected journalists in the game, went on to say that, "Hill was turning in a performance of Olympian quality when Grey caught him off the ball, elbow to face, as the Lions mounted what might have been a series-clinching attack. Hill was invalided out of the tour and his team's chances disappeared with him."

Richard Hill's injury altered the course of the 2001 Test series against Australia

After winning the World Cup with England in 2003, Hill earned selection in his third successive Lions party despite being sidelined for seven months from October 2004 following surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Typically for a man whose determination and hard work has never been doubted, Hill somehow fought his way back to full fitness to be named in the starting line up for the first Test against New Zealand. Once again, injury intervened to prevent Hill from receiving his rightful Lions send off.

While most observers point to Brian O'Driscoll's early exit as one of the key reasons behind the Lions’ capitulation in the opening rubber, and indeed the Test series as a whole, the injury suffered by Hill had an equally profound impact on the outcome of the tour.

The then 32-year-old suffered another debilitating knee injury during the opening half of the 21-3 defeat in Christchurch meaning he would play no further part in the series. Without Hill's incredible work rate and vast experience, the Lions were no match for the All Blacks, losing the series 3-0 and heading home empty handed.

Outside of his involvement with the Lions, Hill was one of a dying breed. A one-club man who only ever made the headlines for the right reasons, Hill was part of England's Holy Trinity – an impressive back row unit alongside Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio that took the Red Rose to the top of the world.

He was the only man never to be dropped during Sir Clive Woodward's England reign and was an automatic choice for the semi-final and final of the 2003 World Cup despite having missed the three previous games through injury.

Hill won 71 caps for his country between 1997 and 2004, with only injury preventing him from adding to that tally up until his retirement from the club game in 2008. He spent a total of 15 years with Saracens as a player, making his debut during the amateur era and remaining one of the constant figures at a club that has seen its fair share of change since the birth of professionalism.

His standing in the sport is perhaps best summarised by former England coach Brian Ashton, who had this to say when Hill decide to call time on an outstanding career:

"Richard personifies for me everything that is good about a professional rugby player. His contribution…has been a massive one."

Richard Hill factfile

Date of birth: May 23, 1973
Club: Saracens
International caps: England 71
Height: 6ft 2in (1.88m)
Weight: 16 stone (102kg)

Hill's Lions lowdown

Lions debut:Versus Western Province Invitational XV, May 24, 1997
Lions Tests: 5 (1st and 2nd Tests in SA in '97 and Aus in '01, 1st Test in NZ in '05)
Lions non-Test appearances: 8
Total Lions appearances: 13 (5 in 1997, 5 in 2001 and 3 in 2005)
Lions points: 5 (one try)
Final Lions appearance: Versus New Zealand, Christchurch, June 25, 2005

Hill (second from left) personified all that is good about our sport

On becoming a Lion first time around

"At the turn of '97, I was England A but I felt that I was pushing for potential England selection, but you never know. The thought of a Lions tour or a Lions Test series was certainly not something that was playing on my mind.

"It's only after you've got one or two England games under your belt that you suddenly start thinking, 'well, actually, I've played against two of the four teams that make up the Lions and I think I've fared okay, therefore I must stand a chance of getting involved in the squad at least'.

"I found out by letter. It was in a hotel in Birmingham that we had to meet for the very first time. We gathered as a squad of a bout 60-something and all of a sudden you're looking around the room and thinking, 'this isn't a bad room to be in!' It was full of quite impressive individuals."

On a mutual respect and being written off in '97

"There's no doubting that we had a mutual bonding around one fact: not only did the South African players, media, and public not think that we had the ability to win the Test series, I think many people in Britain didn't even think we could win it.

"There was a point to prove – an acknowledgement of the ability we had in our squad and of the fact that we could win. It would take a lot of hard work but the most encouraging part was that everyone was committed to that.

"I think we did a good job in the first week. We had the set-a-side team-bonding activities as well as a couple of training sessions and the impromptu social. It was nothing staged. It wasn't like speed dating or anything like that!"

On hard work helping create a special team spirit in South Africa

"I think we also bonded on the training pitch. Sometimes it was done through extremely hard work. Having someone like Jim Telfer as your forwards coach, a man who doesn't take any stick and doesn't accept standards below the best, meant that when we had a couple of scrummaging performances that were below par in the first three games, we received a severe scrummaging beasting.

"It went beyond scrummaging technique. It turned into scrummaging technique, scrummaging fitness and a severe beasting, but that's a way of bringing people together. You live people's experiences. You live their pain and you live their joy when it's over.

"You knew that they had the capacity levels for hard work. You knew that everybody that was there was prepared to go the last breath, because you'd seen it. You knew how far they could go and you also knew that if you weren't putting it in, you were letting them down."

Richard Hill turned 24 a day before his Lions debut in May 1997

On happy memories of a first Test win against the Boks

"For the first Test, I was certainly very nervous, very ashen faced, very quiet before it. You look back at the videos now and either I had a very slender framework or that was a XXXXL shirt!

"The game pivoted around Matt Dawson's try. That was a key moment and that gave us an ounce of confidence, knocked them a little bit and allowed us to get the Alan Tait try that secured the victory.

"All of a sudden, we'd gone into their territory and we'd marked our spot. It was something that completely knocked them for six and I think it probably helped us win the second Test as well.

"Not only did the South Africans have to contend with disappointment of losing, they also had to contend with the country's disappointment and them asking questions of individuals as well as the team. That meant that we had a confidence ourselves."

On securing the series and a career highlight

"I think that confidence was one of the key things. In a way, you can look at that second Test and think that they played the better rugby.

"But the fact is we fought for everything, we defended for our lives and we were fortunate that Neil Jenkins was playing out of position at full back and had an absolute stormer of a series that meant he was able to kick everything – before Jerry Guscott stepped up to steal the limelight!

"At that point (when Guscott kicked the winning drop goal), I was on the side but I saw it going up and knew it was over. We just had to concentrate hard then, we had a couple of minutes to see out and they had the capacity to score points.

"It was just brilliant, it was awesome. Seeing the thousands red shirts singing and shouting. There was naturally a celebration at King's Park. There are very few venues in the world where you can go out on to the back pitches and the car parks where they've got their barbeques going and their beers out. It's a very relaxed, informal way of doing it.

"That Test series definitely ranks up there. That was one of the first major top-level successes that I had. The fact that I went on to do another two tours and was unable to have that same achievement highlights how difficult in can be."

On a tour-ending injury in 2001

"I bobbled a pass from Martin Johnson and took a hit to the face. At the time you're thinking, 'well, has that affected me or not'. You almost need a few seconds to gather yourself.

"I don't think I was actually convinced who I was playing for because I'm not used to playing in red! It took me a little while to work out who I was playing for and where we were.

"I went off just to try and re-gather my thoughts, went back on and played out the rest of that half. I remember walking off the pitch and it was almost like I then woke up in a medical room at half time.

"You go through some of the precautionary tests and, unfortunately, that night I was told I wouldn't be able to feature the next week. That was a horrible thing to take.

"I thought from my personal performances that the tour had been going well. I desperately wanted to get out there again and play in the series decider. Unfortunately, that was taken out of my hands."

Another horrific injury ended Hill's tour and his Lions career in 2005

On another disappointing outcome in 2005

"I'd fought extremely hard to make the tour and make myself available. I was feeling confident that it was all sorted but nothing could have prepared me for the position I got myself in.

"I was happy with my tackle, it was just a meeting of forces. Unfortunately, the left leg wasn't in a perfect position and got caught underneath. I then had to take all of Ali Williams' weight.

"I knew on that tour that I was never going to play in 2009 so it was just all about trying to rehabilitate the knee to get myself back on to a rugby pitch. I'm not saying I rehabilitated properly or fully but I certainly got back on to the pitch, which was my desire."

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