Richard Hill’s British & Irish Lions fairytale may have ended in disappointment, a knee injury forcing him off in the first test of the 2005 tour of New Zealand, but the England legend and World Cup champion had already made his mark on the famous red jersey.
Renowned for his effective and abrasive style of forward play, Hill’s big hits, shrewd driving and energy-sapping support play helped the Lions to victory over the Springboks in 1997.
The Saracens star also featured twice more in a hotly contested 2001 tour of Australia, playing 80 minutes as the Lions defeated their hosts 29-13 in the first test at the Gabba.
Hill’s crowning achievement came at the 2003 World Cup where he shook off injury to star in England’s maiden triumph, but the 41-year-old is remembered just as fondly at his home club for lifting the Dorset and Wiltshire Cup a decade beforehand.
Salisbury RFC was where Hill received his rugby education, and clubman of 35 years Jim Olsen still remembers the day a surprisingly large five-year-old turned up for his first ever minis rugby session.
“He was a big lad even then!” he said. “Richard started at minis level when he was very young back in 1978, and then played for Salisbury continuously for 15 years when he was playing for the England under-21s.
“So he played right through his youth career with Salisbury before moving to Saracens – he’s been very much a two-club man and is extremely loyal to both.
“He certainly always seemed to be capable of reaching the heights that he has done. But when he first started for the club, in almost the first session, his first coach Dave Wilkins said he thought that this boy was going to play at Twickenham one day.
“The potential was always there; he was captain of his age group, played counties rugby for Dorset and Wilts from the age of 14, and played for England from 16 all the way upwards.
“Richard was always very big and strong. He played his first game for Salisbury first XV when he was 16, which obviously you can't do today, but he was good enough to play at that age against some top quality sides at the time.”
Salisbury RFC was formed in 1912, and despite a rich history of producing international players such as Dave Egerton (England), Tom Heathcote (Scotland), and current England full-back Mike Brown, Hill remains their only Lion to date.
Currently competing in the Southern Counties South league (level seven of English rugby), Salisbury’s academy is thriving thanks in part to heavy support at its launch by Hill, and latest off the production line are Bath starlets Tom and Will Homer.
Hill was known as the ‘silent assassin’ of England’s World Cup winning side, and Olsen insists he brought the same quiet and modest demeanour with him from his youth.
He added: “Richard was always a very quiet and reserved kind of guy, although I wouldn't necessarily say that made him well behaved!
“But he never really believed in himself that he was a good player. He always seemed surprised to be selected for anything and was a very modest guy.
“He says in his autobiography, ‘I don’t remember standing out as a youngster, apparently the coaches said I had something special about me’, which just about sums his attitude up.
“He comes back regularly, and when he gets the chance he comes to watch the first team, and is still in contact with a lot of the friends that he made at the club as well – such as my son, Marcus, who played with him up to England under-21 level.
“He speaks at club dinners and other events like that, so is very much in touch with us here at Salisbury.”
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