Richard Hill, the England team manager, plays a key role as talent spotter for Steve Borthwick.Photo: David Rogers/RFU/The RFU Collection/Getty Images
During his playing days, World Cup-winning flanker Richard Hill always kept a low profile and in his current role as England team manager, talent spotter and one of Steve Borthwick’s key lieutenants, it seems little has changed.
Just ask Chandler Cunningham-South, England’s youngest back-back, who only recently learned that the 50-year-old who had given him a few tips over the years, who “sounds like he knows what he’s talking about”, spoke out broad experience. “He found out I was playing in the World Cup, probably three months ago,” Hill says. “Chandler isn’t too concerned about what happened in the past. He wanted to know why I didn’t tell him. I said it had no bearing on what we were trying to achieve, and that was about him, not me.”
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It’s a fitting anecdote from someone who was dubbed the ‘Silent Killer’ during his playing days and who was described by his great French rival, Serge Betsen, as ‘coming from the shadows, from the darkness’, and who played Hill in England epitomizes. Hill does not seek the spotlight and has rarely spoken to the media in more than seven years as team manager.
Hill began working for the Rugby Football Union in 2014 with a focus on pathway development and in a mentoring role for back-rowers. He was appointed team manager by Eddie Jones in 2016 and when Borthwick took over a year ago, Hill’s role became more widely known. The current head coach relies heavily on him when it comes to identifying and developing talent, while playing a key role in maintaining and improving relations between club and country.
His influence is all too evident as he watches the England squad in last weekend’s matchday win over Italy. One of the first things Jones did as head coach was to task Hill with finding some open flankers at a time when England had an abundance of “six-and-a-halfs” but not enough sevens. Not long later, Hill brought Sam Underhill – then playing for the Ospreys – to Jones’ attention, while Tom Curry, currently sidelined by a debilitating hip injury, regularly speaks of the influence Hill has had on his career.
Ethan Roots, meanwhile, made his Rome debut and was brought to Borthwick’s attention by Hill, who had watched him in Premiership Rugby Cup action for Exeter while England were at the World Cup last year. “My experience with Richard Hill is that he is one of the great talent spotters,” said Borthwick. “Like [he] tells me to follow a back row forward, I listen.
Then there is Cunningham-South, who is only 21 – eight months old when Hill won the World Cup – but made a fine cameo from the bench against Italy. “There’s no doubt he’s powerful, he’s got aggression,” Hill said. “And he has the physical skills that are important to break tackles and get the team over the winning line. We saw [against Italy] that covering gear he’s created that shows he’s willing to cover the ground, and not just cover it, but make sure he anchors his shoulder in someone’s ribs if necessary. And I quite like that. Yes, that is very appealing.”
So how does it feel to see players he helped develop walk away from the senior side? “I’m definitely pleased,” says Hill. “There are a lot of people in this management who spend a lot of time watching rugby, trying to make players as good as they can be. And to see a player perform, to see the team win, is extremely important for us. Of course that will be satisfying. But that’s one game. We can’t afford to let that unravel in the second game. It must be continuous.
“Personal experience tells me that once you think you are the finished article, or that you have made it in this environment, you are gone. Unfortunately, the game continues. People are always looking for ways to beat the system. It is not unusual for a player to be excellent, but then suddenly a few games in the opposition have passed: ‘I think he looks very nice. We must destroy him.’ And then it’s your skills to reinvent yourself.
“Look at Richie McCaw. Everyone said they knew how he played. Well, if you think you’d think he could be taken out easily, wouldn’t you? Certainly there were periods when he was probably calmer, but then he found another way to do something – and that’s the challenge we have to put in every player that comes through the system.”
Hill practices what he preaches and cast his eye on the latest crop of England U20s in their victory over Italy last Friday night – Northampton’s back-rower Henry Pollock scored a hat-trick and is a name to watch – and will do so again this weekend against Wales.
Since Borthwick’s arrival, Hill’s mandate has increased and he is “present in all Premiership matches”. He says there are no specific positions he is looking for – taking the more holistic approach – but ‘tighthead’ and ‘inside-centre’ are positions where England particularly lack depth and are undoubtedly on his agenda. We also need to address England’s relative lack of power with the Vunipola brothers out of the picture and Manu Tuilagi, now 32, a declining force.
“We have the club system that is in our international teams and I think obviously what we are going to try to do is develop as many players as possible,” Hill added. “The nature of the sport is that they are not always going to be fit so with the widest spread of players we can get the bigger group we can get.
“By playing as well as they can, the training can be better, which allows them to challenge themselves more, which ultimately means that positions in teams are harder to reach, the matches become much more difficult and we get these better players. I can’t say I haven’t talked around a particular player who’s in the back row who I’ve named as center but I’ve been outvoted by about 99 to one so we’ll get on with it and we’ll continue to move but because those conversations happen all the time.