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Hill set for final fling

Richard Hill celebrates with the Webb-Ellis trophy after England's win over Australia in 2003 in Sydney
Hill was a crucial figure in England's World Cup-winning team

By James Standley

To some he was "Hilda", to others the "Silent Assassin".

To Sir Clive Woodward he was simply indispensable.

Richard Hill, a key player in England's 2003 World Cup-winning team, was never dropped by Woodward during his reign as England boss.

But now, after a long-running battle with serious knee injuries, the 34-year-old is on the verge of what may well be his last-ever game of rugby.

Saracens, the only club Hill has played for in his senior career, will be major underdogs when they meet Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-finals at Coventry's Ricoh Arena on Sunday.

He has already announced he will retire at the end of the season and such is the state of his left knee that, if Saracens lose to the 2006 champions, he is not expected to play in their final two league games.

Hill is the ultimate unsung hero, hugely rated by close observers but liable to slip under the radar of casual fans.

The likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jason Robinson were the media darlings after England's World Cup triumph, but ask those in the game for their view on the 2003 team and Hill receives rapturous reviews.

He comes from the shadows, from the darkness

France's Serge Betsen on Hill

Scrum-half Matt Dawson has described former team-mate Hill as "without question, the best rugby player England have ever had".

James Haskell, who now fills the England number six shirt worn by Hill for the vast majority of his 71 caps, says the Saracens star is "probably the best English back-row player ever".

Legendary former All Blacks number eight Zinzan Brooke has described Hill as "outstanding", adding that he was as important to England in 2003 as Wilkinson and Johnson.

The great France flanker Serge Betsen, who played against Hill many times, says: "He comes from the shadows, from the darkness".

And former captain Johnson, England's new manager, has paid tribute in the past to Hill's "consistent excellence at the highest level of the sport".

A fine athlete who had the skills to play right across the back row, Hill settled into the England side in the unglamorous blind-side role as part of the celebrated triumvirate alongside Neil Back and Dallaglio.

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He had the skills and pace to play a major role in attack, but it was in defence and at rucks and mauls that he excelled, putting in the unseen work that enables a team to operate to its fullest potential.

Appropriately it was when he was missing from the team sheet that he was most noticeable.

On the 2001 Lions tour of Australia the tourists were leading at half-time in the second Test, having won the first, when he was taken out by a brutal forearm to the head by Wallaby centre Nathan Grey.

Without Hill, the Lions were no longer in control and they went on to lose both the Test and the series.

At the 2003 World Cup, Hill injured a hamstring early in the campaign and England struggled in the three games he missed.

Hill returned for the semi-final against France, and the rest is history.

Even now, when he is playing on virtually one leg because his left knee is shot, he is a vital presence for Saracens.

Before their Heineken Cup quarter-final against the Ospreys, a Saracens side minus Hill was hammered 30-3 by the Welsh region in the EDF Energy Cup.

Richard Hill tackles Ospreys flanker Marty Holah in the Heineken Cup victory
Even on one leg Hill was man of the match against the Ospreys

But two weeks later Hill was back to produce a man-of-the-match performance as Saracens won 19-10 to reach the last four.

Hill's spirit remains willing but the body is weak after a run of injuries which would have seen a less driven individual hang up his boots long ago.

He was out for six months after surgery on his left knee in October 2004, before rupturing ligaments in the same knee in June 2005 on the Lions tour to New Zealand.

He missed the entire following season and a subsequent infection, which left him seriously ill, meant he only returned to action in October 2006.

The anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee was so badly damaged in the second injury he had to have it replaced with an ACL from a corpse, and he now walks with a permanent limp.

Hill has been linked with a role in Martin Jonson's new England set-up when he finally hangs up his boots, but says his future is undecided.

"I have spoken to people inside and outside of rugby and that process is ongoing," he commented.

"Staying within rugby would be a preferred option. I have immersed myself in rugby as an amateur or professional for 30 years; I have enjoyed it but I will be looking forward to the next challenge."

Hill's time on the field may be coming to an end, but his position as an all-time great of the English game is assured forever more.


see also
Hill primed for Munster mission
25 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Gaffney wary of Munster forwards
24 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Hill to retire at end of season
24 Jan 08 |  Saracens
Hill battles back
29 Nov 06 |  Rugby Union
Brooke issues Hill warning
04 Nov 03 |  England
England players hail Hill
20 Mar 03 |  Rugby Union


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