In any composite list of the best players of their era, the name of Richard Hill invariably appears.
Be it for Saracens, England or The British & Irish Lions, the unassuming Hill is recognised by his peers, coaches and media alike as one of the great flankers of the past 25 years.
Hill was an indispensable member of any team he was part of for the best part of a decade. Such was his importance, he was the only player never to be dropped by Sir Clive Woodward in his tenure as England coach.
His haul included 71 England caps, a World Cup winner’s medal and three Lions Tours in 1997, 2001 and 2005 to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand respectively which in turn provided him with incredible success, a sense of what might have been, and then crushing disappointment.
“It was a massive honour and highlight of my life to go on one Lions Tour, let alone three, and to win a series,” Hill said. “There are no regrets.
“With the benefit of hindsight there are always things you would perhaps do differently. But the Lions was an incredible experience and a privilege.”
‘Unflashy, uncomplicated and unflappable’
Accolades accorded him include the ‘ultimate players’ player’. He was unflashy, uncomplicated and unflappable, but always the glue of any team of which he was an integral member.
In his playing career Hill was equally adept on the blind or open-side – a player blessed with the physical attributes an abrasiveness and physicality allied to a phenomenal work rate to suit either position.
His decision-making was impeccable, he tackled and drove powerfully, was an astute reader of the game and instinctively a great support player. Then one must not overlook his lineout prowess.
The praise he takes with unaffected modesty: “As a young player coming through, I would bounce up and down a bit more in terms of believing my own press.
“I became a better player when I became more level-headed, not getting carried away with praise and not getting downhearted by negativity.”
His first memory of the Lions was the 1989 Tour to Australia which he watched at home with his father, wearing a Lions t-shirt he had bought through mail order from Rugby World.
Eight years later, and only three months after making his international debut against Scotland in the Five Nations, he was selected for the epoch-defining Tour to South Africa. He described it as a transformational experience.
“We knew the size of the task coming up against the world champions,” Hill continued. “Their pedigree and performance was high, based on the physicality of a dominant set of forwards. They felt they would win that series.
“As a group of proud British and Irishmen we knew we had to do everything we could to dispel that notion.
“There were some question marks asked about whether we had the fight to confront South Africa.
“Early problems in the scrum were rectified by Jim Telfer and there were some pretty dark (training) sessions. We knew Jim would be a hard task master we knew we had to get on with it.
“When you’ve trained as we did you cannot not deliver that same effort. The players that were picked (for the first Test) were not necessarily the most experienced but those who had played well on the Tour; guys who would technically challenge South Africa.
“It was not just about confronting the physical challenge head on but using smaller players who could get under the Springboks, change angles and cause problems.”
‘Guscott’s famous drop goal’
Having won the first Test 25-16 in Cape Town, the Lions were prepared for a backlash in Durban. And it duly arrived.
“It was the most physical game I ever played in,” Hill added. “At every breakdown if there was an opportunity to clear the ball out and a player at the same time that was high on their priority list.
“There was a lot of body on body, we were put under a lot of pressure. But Jenks’ (Neil Jenkins) ability to stay in the zone to keep his technique and cool kept our scoreboard ticking over.
“Just by staying in the game you knew that Jenks could be a critical factor and that is how it turned out.
“We never lost faith. It was backs to the wall at times defending, but everyone had already bought into that commitment.”
Hill was replaced by Neil Back after 50 minutes. He was therefore forced to watch the unfolding drama from the stands.
“When Jerry [Guscott] dropped that goal [to win the series] the feeling was one of elation and satisfaction.
“We had gone over to play the champions in their back yard and not been given much chance prior to leaving, and not much more after our first couple of warm-ups. People were turning their nose up at us.”
‘A tour down under’
Fast forward to 2001 and Graham Henry was appointed coach for the Tour to Australia which began well but ended on a sour note as Matt Dawson and Austin Healey wrote highly critical newspaper columns about division in the squad and the role of the coaching team.
“At that time I felt I was maturing into a better player than I had been in ’97,” explained Hill. “Building up to that Tour, I knew a series of performances in the Six Nations would be important.
“You obviously had experience of a Lions Tour, which would be taken into account, but it would be form at the time that would get you selected.”
Looking for an edge that would ensure he made the trip Hill worked hard on his lineout jumping technique.
When Saracens missed out on the end of season play-offs, the flanker put the extra time to good use.
“I had a couple of weeks to try and hone that skill,” he said. “I was fortunate I could arrange some of the training before that Tour with David Flatman, Julian White and Danny Grewcock. Danny helped me in learning to efficiently jump and the other guys with lifting.
“In Australia it was important for the players to set the tone. We didn’t have the same level of opposition to play against in the early matches [as 1997].
“In the first Test in Brisbane, the atmosphere was incredible because of the dominance of our supporters in their stadium. It was amazingly uplifting. The noise was incredible and that performance showed how we wanted to play.
“Jason Robinson being able to beat Chris Latham in a five-metre channel set the tone for the match; then (Brian) O’Driscoll doing his big five-metre sliding sidesteps and his acceleration. And the power of Scotty Quinnell. We had an ability to do different things.”
After that 29-13 first Test victory, history again beckoned in Melbourne in the second Test for the Lions.
Australia called on national pride and supporters to match the passion and colour of their counterparts from Britain and Ireland.
As far as Hill was concerned it was also a match that caused huge frustration, thanks to the injury he sustained in a brutal tackle by Nathan Grey, which it could be argued swung the match and indeed the series.
“Our first-half performance was pretty to watch but unfortunately it wasn’t efficient enough to score the points. (they led 11-6),” acknowledged Hill.
“That’s how we lost it. We didn’t score enough points in the first half. In any match you have to expect the pressure is going to come back on you.
“So you have to expect the opposition will have the ball at some stage and will apply that pressure. That’s what happened.”
Momentum and the game swung on the interception by Joe Roff of a Jonny Wilkinson pass against the run of play early in the second period.
“It gave them a boost and they stepped it up. We didn’t handle that period well.”
‘My god I’m bored talking about you’
By that time though Hill was already off the field after the collision late in the first half with Grey. Hill did not reappear for the second 40.
“The Australian doctor decided I wasn’t fit to continue,” he said.
“That was hugely disappointing. It was gutting. You work so hard on a Lions Tour to be selected. You realised that was the end of that Tour.
“I would love to have carried on in the decider. But it wasn’t to be. There was no point in dredging through everything. The outcome was the same. I couldn’t play.”
Hill continued: “I have always felt there has been no point in trying to analyse it. It is what it is. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Nathan (Grey) after the match.
“Then 12 years later on the 2013 Tour I walked into a bar in Brisbane the night before the first Test and there he was.
“We said ‘hello’ to each other. It was a very simple conversation. I said, ‘My God I’m bored about talking about you.’ He replied: ‘You’re bored?! I’m getting it everywhere I go!’
Rob Howley, who’d broken his ribs, and Hill stayed out in Australia for the decider. They shared a room together. Australia edged it 29-23, with the Lions riddled by injuries.
“It was a winnable series. Up until the last play of the game there was everything to play for,” added Hill.
“What if the ball had gone into Martin Johnson’s hands (at a crucial lineout) and there had been a driving maul which had been so effective?
“Fair play though to Justin Harrison; however he obtained his knowledge or intuition he stole a critical ball. It was a match winner.”
Hill made it a Lions hat-trick in 2005 when Woodward was in charge. In between, he and England had exacted a significant measure of revenge by winning the World Cup in 2003 defeating the Wallabies in Sydney.
The esteem in which he was regarded was such that Hill was selected for New Zealand despite playing only two halves of rugby in the preceding six months.
“I had had serious injury building up to that Tour and had had to work incredibly hard to get on to that Tour,” said Hill.
“The previous October I tore my knee ligaments and I literally had six and a half months to get fit. I was being told recovery would be six to nine months.
“It was always a balance between how hard you push it as opposed to making sure you get it right. I went to America to see Bill Knowles, a former skier who was an expert in helping players with knee injuries back.
“I jumped at the chance to go. For three weeks I saw nothing but the inside of Knowles’s gym. I went there not being able to run. I did get back. No-one could understand how much progress I made out there.”
As is natural, the squad was cast in the image of its coach, as Hill explains: “Clive had chosen a different approach. In wanting to win the Test series, Clive wanted the potential Test team to have time on the pitch together. Time to work on combinations and understanding.
“There were two groups of coaches with an emphasis to prepare the midweek or Saturday team.”
‘By the time I got into the medical room Brian’s shoulder still wasn’t in’
Again controversy reared its head and rain bedevilled first Test in Christchurch, which set the tone for what turned out to be a long Tour with little respite.
“We had taken the cultural advice as how to approach the acceptance of the Haka and the challenge we knew was coming up,” continued Hill.
“We knew we were doing it as a respectful thing. I am no sure at the time that was how it was interpreted by the New Zealand players.”
Brian O’Driscoll accepted the challenge laid down by releasing a blade of grass into the angry night sky. For whatever reason it did not go down well.
“Clearly it motivated them and got them incredibly aroused,” said Hill. “Within a couple of minutes our captain was down injured; his Tour over. And I was only 20 minutes away from joining him.”
The culprit was again the left knee.
“I was trying to plug a hole running right to left, but an All Black took a slight step off his right leg and because I was covering across, I thought I’d got a good right shoulder on him.
“But he was 120 kg unfortunately – I think it was Ali Williams – and with his body weight, my left leg got caught underneath me.
“I heard a noise and thought, ‘Oh no.’ “I went to the far side of the pitch to wait for the golf buggy which still wasn’t back from taking Brian to the medical room.
“I lent against one of the rotating advertising hoardings and got told off by security! By the time I got into the medical room Brian’s shoulder still wasn’t in.
“It was a big open-plan room. Brian was directly opposite me and they were still waving his arm around, trying to put it back in. I thought, ‘My goodness me. This is horrible.’
“I found out the extent of my injury the next morning. I‘d done the ligaments again and I was devastated. It took me 16 months to return. There were some tougher moments.”
So, his time as a Lions player ended in extreme disappointment. But he can still cherish that 1997 victory against the Springboks which will always live long in the memory as does the World Cup in 2003 with England. Does one rank above the other?
“I always try and relate it to people who have got two or more children,” he explained. “I ask them which one is their favourite. It is just impossible to answer.”