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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 08:47 GMT
Hill battles back
By Simon Austin

RICHARD HILL FACTFILE
Richard Hill
Born: Surrey, 23 May 1973
Position: Blindside flanker
Nickname: The Silent Assassin
Club: Saracens
Caps: 71
International tries: 12
When Andy Robinson reflects on his troubles as England's head coach, he is likely to rue the unavailability of two key players.

The name of the first is obvious - the pin-up boy of English rugby and kicker of "that" drop goal, Jonny Wilkinson.

The second, that of Richard Hill, might come as more of a surprise.

Hill might be able to go to his local supermarket in Winchmore Hill, London, without being recognised, but he is a man held in enormously high esteem by team-mates and coaches.

World Cup-winning scrum-half Matt Dawson recently described him as "without question the best rugby player England have ever had", while captain Martin Johnson paid tribute to his "consistent excellence at the highest level of the sport".

Hill is a man whose true worth is evident only in his absence and England fans have certainly missed him since he last played for his country in June 2004.

Yet the 33-year-old, whose autobiography has just been published, says he is happy to be playing any level of rugby again.

At the end of April he visited a consultant before undergoing knee surgery and was told his career was over.

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The 'Silent Assassin', renowned as a man of few words, is visibly moved when he thinks back to this time.

"When someone tells you you need to retire, you don't know what to say or think," he tells BBC Sport.

"I saw the consultant on Wednesday ahead of the operation on May Bank Holiday and there was fear and panic in between.

"I remember waking up on the Saturday morning and not knowing what to do with myself.

"It was just a waiting game, like being on death row. It wasn't a pretty place to be. My wife Claire and my family were very supportive - I just had to get to Monday morning and get myself rolled into room 222.

"But I went into the operation fearing it could be the end."

Yet surgery was a success and Hill was told he had a knee that "didn't need to retire".

Over the next few months he set about the long and arduous process of rehabilitation and cut a rather forlorn figure at Saracens' training ground.

"I don't have many hobbies outside rugby and thought fishing would be my best chance of distraction," he says.

Richard Hill
Hill is helped off in the first Lions Test in 2005
"Yet I wasn't allowed to even do that because it involved walking up and down uneven river banks.

"So I'd find myself at the training ground. Because of the injury, I wasn't part of the social side of the club any more. You'd be amazed about how much of it is spoken about in changing rooms before and after training sessions.

"Sometimes I'd hear about things and think 'I didn't realise that was going on'. I felt really cut off from things for a while."

Hill returned to training in September and took part in his first full match in an A team fixture a few weeks ago.

His return to first-team action has been delayed after he was withdrawn just 13 minutes into another A team match last Monday.

He has recovered from that setback and is clearly itching to return to the first team.

"I'm available for selection," he says. "Like any other player coming back from injury or joining a new club, I need to be training and playing and hopefully impressing.

"Then it comes down to selection. I'm on a different side of the selection process than I have been for the rest of my career.

"Saracens' first XV are going well at the moment and I can't expect any favours."

And Hill insists he hasn't even thought about adding to his 71 England caps.

"I'm not targeting England - my focus has been on rehab and my level is Saracens A team at the moment," he says.

"Until I can prove I'm better than that, I'll stay where I am."

Despite all the eulogies from fellow players and coaches, few fans are able to pinpoint exactly why Hill is such a fine player. He's not known for surging runs or ferocious tackles.

"I've built a game around high work-rate and I'm quite organised defensively," Hill says modestly.

"You have to have a good reading of the game in the back row and that's something I've built up over time. It's about predicting how a ball's going to bounce.

"People say they don't really see what I do. That shows an element that I'm not the most skilful player in the world, but I try to be honest on the pitch."

And he is one of the game's finest practitioners of the "dark arts".

Richard Hill
Hill was awarded the MBE after England won the World Cup
"Slowing the ball down is a skill, as much as anything else," he insists. "People think it's cheating - it's not.

"It's not giving the attacking player the luxury of landing how he wants to, taking people out of their comfort zones."

It is this cussedness and authority that England's forwards have lacked during the fateful autumn internationals.

But, unlike some of his other World Cup-winning team-mates, Hill refuses to criticise Robinson.

"When the announcement was made that he was taking over from Clive (Woodward), I don't remember anyone saying they didn't think Andy Robinson could do it," he says.

"We've just been looking for players to make something happen, to create space for others or themselves and get across the gain line.

"The World Cup team had those players in abundance - the likes of Jason Robinson, Will Greenwood and Matt Dawson.

"I'm sure performances will get better over time, as people get used to how Brian Ashton wants to play the game."

Such unswerving loyalty is another reason Robinson will rue the absence of the Saracens man.

SEE ALSO
Hill scores on Saracens comeback
31 Oct 06 |  Saracens
Upbeat Hill closes on comeback
02 Oct 06 |  Saracens
Dallaglio ready for Hill benefit
18 May 06 |  Rugby Union
Hill's career on line over injury
26 Jun 05 |  Internationals


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