In 2016, Richard Hill’s role at the Rugby Football Union was expanded. He assumed the position of England team manager in addition to the mentoring work he had begun two years earlier with promising age-grade players. Eddie Jones had a straightforward mission for him: find some openside flankers.
“I told him we didn’t have any,” Hill remembers dryly. “But there were a couple earmarked for a couple of years’ time. Now, that’s come to fruition.”
Typically understated, and typically accurate. England are currently swimming in potential No 7s. Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Ben Earl and Jack Willis have subsequently emerged, all of them featuring at last year’s World Cup. Ben Curry and Tom Pearson are also part of the current squad.
At the weekend in Rome, two more back-rowers made Test debuts. Steve Borthwick has already revealed how Ethan Roots was pointed out to him during the World Cup, while Hill was scouring Premiership Rugby Cup footage. Hill modestly suggests that Borthwick will have been aware of Roots from the latter’s stint at Ospreys. Yet it is a further endorsement of Hill’s eye and his influence.
Chandler Cunningham-South arrived from the bench at the Stadio Olimpico, too. “I think he’d played one game for Esher and London Irish academy were making sure I had some clips of that,” Hill says. “His physicality in the carry was not the norm for an 18-year-old, and I made sure I connected with him at England Under-20 training sessions.”
In time, Hill received a phone call from John Fisher, who was coaching Cunningham-South at Irish. A rather confused Cunningham-South had told Fisher about being greeted by a mysterious yet insightful figure at England Under-20 camps. “Apparently Chandler was saying: ‘He’s got some reasonable ideas, you know? He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.’ Yeah, that was me,” says Hill.
It would be two years after their first conversations when Cunningham-South finally found out that Hill was a World Cup-winning hero of 2003. “He wanted to know why I didn’t tell him,” Hill smiles. “I said it had no bearing on what we were trying to achieve, which was for him, not me.”
In fairness to Cunningham-South, he was barely eight months old when Martin Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Sydney. Hill is renowned for his humility as well. These days, with his prominence increased again under Borthwick, he watches all Premiership fixtures and any age-grade action. On Friday, for instance, the 50-year-old will be at Bath to watch England Under-20s, and exciting openside Henry Pollock, host Wales.
When engaging with any player, he makes sure that his messages are aligned with those of coaches, from that individual’s club, from England Under-20s or within Borthwick’s set-up, to minimise confusion: “I wouldn’t dream of going through their games and making some profound statement about how they defended or attacked without cross-checking.”
‘If players don’t improve the game moves on’
Hill believes that England staff have a responsibility to “make sure it is not a closed shop” for aspiring internationals plugging away in the Premiership. As for specific positions that are in greater need of extra attention, as openside was eight years ago, he highlights the RFU’s tight-five camps as a progressive initiative.
And then there is midfield. Theoretically, could Hill recommend that a promising flanker switch to inside centre? Besides the cooperation of clubs, another consideration is the high attrition rate of playing in the back row. England coaches often need to reach down their depth chart because of injuries. Hill and others are always pondering positional conversions anyway.
“I can’t say that I haven’t spoken about a certain player that is a back-rower that I’ve said is a centre… but I’ve been outvoted about 99 to one,” he smiles. “We go with it and we keep moving.
“Those conversations are happening all the time. If you were to look at front-row forwards, you would find that the vast majority of them have been in the back row until the ages of between 16 and 18.”
As ever, the back-row tussle will be pivotal as Wales come to town. Tommy Reffell and Aaron Wainwright were both excellent against Scotland, despite eventual defeat for Warren Gatland’s men, and will need to be contained by England in different ways.
Test matches can be wild affairs in which momentum swings drastically. Careers also ebb and flow, which is the rationale behind what Hill pinpoints as the single most important quality in a promising player.
“You always need them to have a mindset of wanting to improve,” he says. “Personal experience would say that the moment you think you are the finished article, you’re gone. Unfortunately, the game moves on. People are always looking at ways to beat the system.
“It’s not uncommon for a player to look outstanding for a couple of games and then the opposition go: ‘I like the look of him. We need to nullify him. Then it becomes about that player’s skillset and how they reinvent themselves. Look at Richie McCaw, jeez. Everyone said they knew how he played. You’d think he would be easy to shut down, wouldn’t you?
“There were periods where he was quieter. Then he’d find a different way of doing something. We put that challenge to every player that comes through the system.”