'There was a stigma that if you weren't in a top Premiership club you weren't going to play for England'
When Ted Hill fetched up at Worcester as a gigantic teenager, he was terrified to express himself, paralysed by the fear of dropping a clanger in front of the men he had long watched from the terraces and would soon call teammates. Barely three years on – at just the age of 21 – he is the club’s youngest-ever captain and the vanguard of a burgeoning crop of talent around which Alan Solomons is crafting his squad.
The growth has been rapid and the rise dizzying. Hill made his Premiership debut at 19, scuttling Leicester Tigers like a buffalo thundering through a pack of dogs. He scored two tries off the bench that day and against the same opposition a month or so on, tossed 120kgs of Fred Tuilagi on his rear as if chucking groceries into the boot of his car. That November, he played for England.
Hill has been compared to the great Springbok Duane Vermeulen with his heft and ballast and has become an indispensable totem for Worcester. Still, the call from Solomons stopped him in his tracks. “Being asked to be club captain definitely came as a surprise, particularly at this age, and I was a bit taken aback at the time,” Hill told RugbyPass.
“But I feel like I’m ready for the role. I was sure in my mind that I wanted to do it and I’m really looking forward to getting into it. I definitely see myself as leading from the front. I want to make sure I’m doing that, but also learning how to address the team properly, learning how to communicate efficiently on and off the field with people who live in Worcester, people who have travelled across the world.
“It is slightly daunting but it just drives me that I now have even more responsibility to make sure I’m upholding the vision of the club, our standards and what we want to do on and off the field.”
Plenty his age would not want such a responsibility, preferring to prioritise their own development rather than being burdened with leadership. Hill sees it differently – he looks at the Worcester captaincy as a tool to thrust him to new heights, a catalyst for personal gains and collective improvement.
“Yes, I want to focus on my performance, but you need things to push you and this is one of those things,” he explained. “In this professional environment, I don’t want to sit still and get too comfortable. I want to be challenged because that is how you grow and you learn. To have that responsibility of captaincy is something that will allow me to play even better, or mean that I can take that responsibility and try and flourish in a challenging environment.
“It is my home club and I’m very, very proud to be playing for Worcester. I don’t want us to be talked about as one of the teams fighting at the bottom of the table. We want to be pushing up, we want to be known as a club who upholds everything we talk about, and we walk the walk as well.”
Indeed, Worcester are the team Hill has loved all of his days and longed to represent. He lives a Duncan Weir drop-goal from Sixways with his parents and it wounds him to see the Warriors labelled as perennial relegation scrappers. The evidence, though, suggests that is exactly what they have become. Since winning an intoxicating promotion play-off in 2015, Warriors have never finished higher than tenth in the Premiership, the position they currently occupy amid the coronavirus-enforced suspension of rugby.
Not so long ago, the likes of Hill and Ollie Lawrence might have been lured elsewhere to realise their ambitions, but the scope of Worcester’s investment enticed them to stay and sign new deals. The club have overhauled their coaching staff, hiring free-thinkers such as Jonathan Thomas and Matt Sherratt, added a smattering of playing talent and upgraded Sixways itself.
“I never saw myself as developing at Worcester and then taking my talent elsewhere,” said Hill. “Ollie Lawrence is the same. I wanted to develop at Worcester, stay at Worcester, and try and bring the club up. I’d definitely say that is changing at the club. People want to see it rising up the table. We’re now seeing real positive changes from the top-down, new coaches who everyone is really pleased with and loving their sessions, and we really feel we’re on an upward trajectory.
“It’s great for the guys who have put their confidence in the club and stayed. Hopefully, it pays off and we’ll be here for a long time. There’s always been a thing around Premiership clubs – when you’re not in that top six and you want to play for England, there was a stigma that if you weren’t in a top Premiership club you weren’t going to play for England.
“I always struggled with that concept. I thought, if I can show how good I am in a team that maybe isn’t performing well every week, then surely it when I come into a team that is really dominant, it will show even more. That was always my mindset.”
The foundations are in place for Worcester to blossom with emerging local youngsters at their heart. Hill and Lawrence are the most striking examples. His vice-captain and lieutenant Will Butler and tremendous play-maker Jamie Shillcock are only a year his senior and there are high hopes for stocky back Alex Hearle, who made his debut at the start of the season.
There is something intangible for Hill about playing with mates and long-trusted confidants that binds a team together in the throes of battle. “Everyone had that feeling before when you were playing with a new group, you don’t really know them, you’re not really friends with them very long, then when it comes to a game you think, why am I not trying as hard?
“When you’re with people who you have grown up with – a lot of these guys I’ve known since I was 13 or 14 – and it comes to playing on the field with them, you just want to play harder for those guys. You have built relationships with them over the years.
“Alongside them, it’s important to carry diversity in your squad. At the moment, the academy guys are all young and developing. We’ve got an outstanding group who haven’t come from the academy but have joined from all over the world – people like Melani Nanai and Ed Fidow, people from South Africa and Ireland.
We’re building for something big,stick with us.?? pic.twitter.com/A4fyZOUHlt
— Ted Hill (@Ted_Hill26) March 7, 2020
“It’s so important to have that diversity in your group because that’s how you learn and learn from different cultures. You have to have that talent from elsewhere to complement your flourishing academy. I know that’s what Alan Solomons is really trying to do in the club and it’s working.”
Hill has lofty goals for himself too. He has yet to add to the solitary England cap won back in 2018, although he was included in Eddie Jones’ Six Nations squad this year. He feels that with his 6ft 5ins frame, carrying, tackling, jackaling and aerial prowess, he has the game to force his way into a back row dominated by the ‘Kamikaze Kids’, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.
“My lineout work is something that could be a massive point of difference for me. To have someone who is physical around the park, can carry and tackle and be disruptive around the breakdown, but can also jump and be agile in the air is a good attribute. I want to really perfect my strengths and at the same time be as well-rounded as possible.”
Conversations with Jones during lockdown have been fleeting, but the national coaches have kept in touch with Hill as part of the group of loose forwards they are monitoring. Along with newly signed Matt Kvesic, Hill is the only member of Worcester’s squad capped by England. These experiences have shaped his fledgeling career and taught him valuable lessons about how he needs to conduct himself at Sixways.
“Subconsciously, when you go to England, I put my England brain on where I go, right, I’m going to be really focused, train amazingly, make sure I’m doing all my extras. Then when I come back to Worcester, I put my club brain on and I’m going to ease off at training because I don’t have anything to prove to anyone,” said Hill.
“The important thing is consistency. You’re never going to have amazing training sessions 100 per cent of the time, but that doesn’t mean that every session, you can’t push yourself to try and learn something new, better yourself or connect with your teammates.
“You are always going to have days where you’re just not feeling it. You’re going to have people at 60 per cent, people at 40 per cent, but those people at 90 per cent or 100 per cent have a responsibility to tell the guys who are not doing something, ‘Come on, ten minutes of the session left, let’s finish on a high and smash it’.
“It’s about people who aren’t necessarily captains helping those who are having bad days. No matter what, you’ve always got to be willing, otherwise there’s no point. It’s difficult because it is quite full-on all the time but you need to try and maintain that and bring people with you because that’s when it becomes a lot easier.”
For now, talk is cheap. The Saracens salary cap affair ensures Worcester cannot be relegated, but tenth place will not be seen as a satisfactory finish. The Premiership is a brutal league, but if Hill continues to play as smartly as he talks, then Warriors have a leader who can inspire them to seize a bright new dawn.
One week sharper ?? pic.twitter.com/xllsiAHlsv
— Worcester Warriors (@WorcsWarriors) July 24, 2020
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