When Luis Figo crossed the divide from Barcelona to Real Madrid, the reception on his return to the Bernabeu in El Clasico was toxic. Thousands of white handkerchiefs were raised as if Figo would have to feint and step his way away from mortal danger like a matador and the screams of ‘die Figo’ were so vitriolic, the player had to put his fingers in his ears as missiles rained down on him. In the second-half, when he was about to take a corner, coins, bottles, mobile phones, half-bricks, bicycle chains were clearly visible. In the aftermath, notoriously, a pig’s head was found.
Now no one is suggesting such a poisonous reception is awaiting Cory Hill when he next trots out to face what will be his former region at Rodney Parade, but there is no doubt his departure to local rivals, the Cardiff Blues, stung the Dragons, who under Dean Ryan had been building a quiet renaissance. A curt statement, requesting “the relevant bodies look into the circumstances around the move” suggested the region, which is WRU owned, fought tooth and nail to keep the Welsh lock.
In time, their ardour will cool, but for now, like a lover spurned, his imminent departure hurts.
The point I’m making here is your true value to a club is often exemplified by your exit. If you are thrown garlands and bouquets on emptying your locker for the final time, it’s likely you haven’t made a telling impression but the disappointment voiced by fans and the club’s hierarchy of their former captain suggest they know the Cardiff Blues have secured a player who will significantly strengthen them and weaken the Men of Gwent.
What is unequivocal is that Hill’s standing in the game has risen like shares in video conferencing software in recent weeks. It’s a far cry from June 2017, when I witnessed Hill in his civvies moseying through customs with his close friends from Pontypridd in Queenstown airport. This after a 10-day cameo, in which the full might of the Lions circus focused their eyes on Hill as part of the ‘Geography Six’. Brian O’Driscoll, one of the untouchable Lions grandees spluttered, ‘Cory who?’ as the media savaged the ‘convenience callups’. When Hill took a pew on the pine for the game against the Hurricanes, along with Finn Russell, Allan Dell, Gareth Davies, Tomas Francis and Kristian Dacey, they looked more like condemned men that the anointed few.
From those oxygen-sapping steps at the summit of world rugby, Hill has made 25 appearances for Wales, with a none-too-shabby 76 per cent win rate. He was a co-captain with Ellis Jenkins for Wales’ tour of Argentina in 2018 and his try against England in the 2019 Grand Slam campaign marked a high point, that ironically saw him miss the rest of the season in the act of scoring the try. He had moved swiftly from incurring the chagrin of rugby fans to bathing in their adulation.
Another telling sign of Hill’s journey from Lions tackle-bag holder to one of Wales’ most important players came with the squad announcement for the World Cup to Japan. Still carrying a leg injury, Warren Gatland – not a coach renowned for doe-eyed sentiment – promptly jettisoned a prop from his squad purely to allow Hill every chance to prove his fitness.
Alas, for Hill, despite numerous hopeful press releases, any hopes of playing in his first World Cup remained unfulfilled, and so France, 2023, is the realistic aim, but the player is not counting his chickens.
When interviewing him with the Welsh squad earlier this season, he said the inner-sanctum was never a place where complacency reigned. “It’s a nice place to be when you’re winning, but comfortable? No, I’m never comfortable.”
Recalling his starring role in the ‘Geography Six’, Hill was circumspect. “It was a big learning curve. I was less experienced than Finn Russell, Gareth (Davies) and Tom Francis because I’d only played a few Tests whereas they were probably knocking on the door to play anyway after a decent Six Nations. I was the unknown.”
The obvious question, something this writer had also asked Gareth Davies, is whether death by a thousand Tweets, had served as a motivation in subsequent years. “I learnt a lot about myself in those 10 days when everyone was slagging me off, not saying great things about me, but I have a good family behind me and friends who keep my feet on the ground.”
As for whether it toughened him up, Hill let out a toothy grin. “It didn’t toughen me up, I just tried to brush it off. It’s part and parcel of being a professional rugby player. In any other job, you get a bit of heat, but in our profession, you get the social media to go with it. With the Lions, there is massive hype and everyone becomes a rugby pundit. You have to take it on the chin and look to improve. On the upside, we learnt from great coaches and spent time with world-class players.”
Clues to Hill’s inner resolve can be found in his background. He is not a player who has always been earmarked as ‘someone destined to make it to the top’. He has had to bounce back from disappointment. A shining light as an age-grade player, who captained Wales at the U20 Junior World Cup, he had his dreams shattered a year later when he was released by his home region. At just 21, after some navel-gazing, he received a call to play at the Championship’s Moseley. He had a decision to make.
After the metaphorical tossing of a coin, he felt he had nothing to lose. It was a coming of age period for the now 28-year-old. “I was out of my comfort zone. They had the old Irish centre Kevin Maggs coaching us but we had a few Welshies up there like Ben Evans, the former Welsh tighthead prop, Mike Powell, second-row for the Ospreys and hooker Rhys Oakley, so I was fine.”
Able to develop away from the goldfish bowl that is Welsh rugby, Hill thrived in his five-month stay. “It was a semi-professional set-up. We trained Tuesday and Thursday nights and Wednesday mornings, so the Welsh boys would travel up and bunk over with Olly Robinson (now at the Cardiff Blues), and Buster Lawrence, kipping on couches. We had a good crack and I was picked up by the Dragons in the November of 2013. It was the right thing to do at the time. A step back to step forward, if you like.”
His return to the region that discarded him seven years ago clearly left scars. While Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams, both Swansea boys, may never run out in Ospreys colours after being discarded and overlooked, Hill is clearly the forgiving type. There are new coaches and players at the club but there are plenty of clues that show the secondrow’s formative years there left a lasting impression.
Indeed, while Hill claims not to be booksmart on the art of leadership, not one to gorge on management tomes in his spare time, he has clearly done a fine job of soaking up learnings from gnarled veterans along the way. “I’ve been around some fantastic captains, you know major characters. Paul Tito was one of the best ones. He was a Cardiff Blues cult hero and great with us Academy Boys. Then you look at guys like Gethin Jenkins and Martyn Williams. The Blues had a really decent squad when I was coming through.”
Hill continued his PhD in leadership at the Dragons, where he listened and learnt. “Andrew Coombs was a great leader on and off the pitch and there was Rob Sidoli. I used to go and watch Rob from the stands in Sardis Road as a kid and learnt a lot from him as a lineout caller.”
That Hill has had such a natural affinity with leadership is unsurprising. A former captain of Pontypridd schools and Cardiff U18s, he has always been drawn to the captain’s armband. “I led sides from young age; at minis and juniors and youth level and the more you grow, the more leadership you take on. As a lineout caller, you have a lot on your shoulders. You have to be a stern character and not wilt under pressure.”
Another individual to play a part in his journey was the former Wales and Pontypridd legend, Dale McIntosh, who lent a ear when he most needed it. “Chief was a mentor to me as a young kid. He was Ponty coach and I had a lot of respect for him as a person and the way he played the game. All I ever wanted to do was play for Pontypridd growing up. I actually phoned him when I was released from the Blues and he was really supportive with his advice.”
Hill’s constant battle to prove himself, has continued on the Test stage, and while at 6ft 5in and nearly 18 stone, he is no Lilliputian, he knows the international Test arena is littered with locks he looks up to. Eben Etzebeth, Brodie Retallick and James Ryan are all 6ft 8in, while RG Snyman is 6ft 9in and Devin Toner 6ft 10in. So does it bother him? “Well, you just have to jump a little bit higher”, he says, deadpan. “Seriously, there was a stage where international rugby was made for massive men, but I think it’s changed a bit. There are a lot more athletes in the game now. You have to be a lot fitter. The ball in play time is a lot longer and you get your hands on the ball more. I guess my engine is one of my strengths. You have to be very fit playing Test rugby now. You can’t be 130kgs and just plod around.”
While it’s easy for detractors to pinpoint what the Maesycoed-born lock is lacking – indeed he’s unlikely to be topping the bench press or deadlift records – along with Justin Tipuric in the backrow, he has that almost a throwback quality of being, wait for it…a very good rugby player. Multi-skilled either side of the ball, he is a superb lineout technician, has the aerobic ability to go for 80 minutes, regularly hits double-figures in his tackle-count, fashion turnovers, while his handling and carrying skills and reading of the game point to a player that would be coveted in any squad.
He is also adaptable. A more than competent blindside at regional level, and like Courtney Lawes, a second-half option at Test level, meaning the old versatility tag can be cast arrow-like at him. Hill is unruffled. “Sometimes you get that tag. Some very good boys have been bench players because they play a few positions but first and foremost I am a second row. I played at 6 for the Dragons sometimes because they wanted to get a bigger pack on the field. I see it as a feather in the cap.”
As for the step-up at Test level on his preference, he’s unequivocal. “You ask any of the boys, as long as I have the three feathers on my chest, I’d play anywhere. As long as I’m doing my bit for the team.”
The geographical move back closer to home means he’ll be getting to spend more time at his beloved Pontypridd Golf Club, and while he has had some wretched misfortune with injuries in the last 12 months, if he can hit the ground running at the Cardiff Blues next season, and stave off the attentions of Jake Ball and Will Rowlands, to partner Alun Wyn Jones for Wales, given his obvious standing with Warren Gatland, a squad place on the Lions tour to South Africa, could be grasped to complete a full circle from Wellington in 2017.
Lady luck, of course, will need to be on his side, but the suggestion, well it is no longer fanciful.
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