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Farewell hero Hill

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.

On Saturday Richard Hill, the only player Woodward never dropped from the England side, finally brought an end a stellar career.

Injuries have taken their toll on the most-lauded unsung hero in the game and the 34-year-old defied the pain to help Saracens secure a 25-20 win over Bristol on the final day of the Premiership season.

Hill was a key member of England's 2003 World Cup-winning team and although he may have slipped under the radar of casual fans he was very highly rated by close observers.

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
Johnson, who captained the 2003 team and has just taken over as England boss, said Hill was the "most consistent player I ever played with".

"But if you say that, people imagine a guy who was very steady. Richard was a guy who was performing at a world level quicker than anyone else and he continued at that level for his entire career," added Johnson.

"He was playing right at the top level every time he played. He was outstanding in that regard."

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.

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

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.

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.

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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.

And right up to the end, even though he has been playing on virtually one leg because his left knee is shot, he has been 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.

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.

In the semi-final against Munster he produced another valiant display and the fact he was on hand to take the ball up in the dying seconds of the game illustrated his never-say-die attitude to perfection.

Richard Hill tackles Ospreys flanker Marty Holah in the Heineken Cup victory
Hill was man of the match against the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup last month
In the end Munster proved too strong for the London side, and so Hill's career ended in the unlikely surroundings of Milton Keynes in a run of the mill league game, rather than in the showpiece occasion of a Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium.

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.

After putting his body on the line against Munster a fortnight ago he was unable to play in Saracens' next match because of the state of his knee.

But even though he knows it is the end of the line Hill says that finishing playing the sport which has been at the heart of his life for 30 years will not be easy.

"I'm well aware it could be an emotional day on Saturday. It was certainly a feeling I didn't expect after the Munster game," he said.

"Once that final whistle went it really did hit me. I suppose I would prefer that not to happen again but I can't guarantee that - I know what I am like."

Hill's future has yet to be decided, although he wants to remain involved in the game and discussion about future roles remain on-going.

But whatever the future involves for Hill, there is no doubt that his place as an all-time England great is beyond dispute.


see also
Saracens 25-20 Bristol
10 May 08 |  English
Hill ready for Saracens farewell
09 May 08 |  Saracens
Saracens 16-18 Munster
27 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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