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RUGBYPASS+ Paul Hill: 'I'm not going to kick Eddie Jones' door down and demand I get picked because that's not going to help anyone.'

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Paul Hill: 'I'm not going to kick Eddie Jones' door down and demand I get picked because that's not going to help anyone.'
5 months ago

Every changing room has its characters. A complex dynamic of introverts, extroverts, and those in between. In the middle is a coach who has to understand and motivate this potentially explosive mix to create the right balance of energy and harmony.

Take Chris Boyd, Northampton’s DoR. He can count on the driven nature of Dan Biggar, the relentlessness of captain Lewis Ludlum, the wise rhetoric of Tom Wood and quiet authority of Courtney Lawes to dominate the mood in the inner sanctum, but what of the younger crop of Saints, all maturing in the public eye and looking for their role in an ultra-competitive squad?

Let us rewind to a snowbound runway of Romania, in December 2018. Northampton had been due to face Timisoara in the Challenge Cup but on landing found the pitch under three feet of snow. After accepting the game could not be played, fans and players looked for the first flights home.

While kicking their heels, looking for news and keeping loved ones informed, boredom set in. Step forward Paul Hill, Saints’ 6ft 2in, 19st prop. With some scholarly research, he pulled together a unique quiz before commandeering the airport intercom to entertain the freezing masses. With his dulcet Doncaster tones carrying over the din of aircraft and snowploughs, with a deadpan delivery, he asked gems like ‘where can you find purple carrots?’ to cheer up the waiting masses and keep spirits up. No one forced him to do it. He did it because he wanted to make people laugh.

Speaking to him three years since that snowy escapade, he is recovering from a shoulder niggle after being walloped by Sam Underhill – Bath’s very own snowplough – Hill is all too aware of the necessity to eke out a role at a club.

Paul Hill
Paul Hill is known for his long-distance tries (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

The big tighthead will have been at Franklin’s Gardens for seven years in April. Five years ago, at the tender age of 21, he was picked by England, but form and fitness deserted him and he found out the hard way that becoming an overnight sensation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. With World Cup winner Owen Franks at the club and Ehren Painter, there were periods when Hill knew he couldn’t even be assured of a squad spot on the weekend. Those difficult formative years were essential to building character

Now at the ripe old age of 26, he finally feels comfortable in his skin, so what is his role in the squad? “I believe there’s a role to play in social cohesion. You need to be able to take the piss out of people to ease the tension. I’ll be honest, I have a laugh with the coaches and have to tread a thin line because they’re my bosses but you need that,” he smiles. “You need certain individuals to drive standards and you need people to bring people together. I feel like I’m more the latter.”

“It sounds corny but every single day I wake up, I love coming to work. Is it the boys at the club, is it the environment? I don’t know but I just love it.”

Speaking to the affable Hill in a hospitality box overlooking the Franklin Garden’s pitch, his blunt honesty on his place in the complex patchwork of the professional game is refreshing. “Every single year there are a fresh batch of 18 and 19 year-olds who are coming to take your job. Every club has it. You have a few years to find your feet and by 23 or 24, it’s crunch time. You have to show you can walk the walk, essentially it’s survive or die.”

With a young 17-month old daughter Henrietta, adding a sprinkling of toddler-chaos into the daily routine, on the field, and a second child on the way, Hill has been thriving. A strong end to the season saw him called up to the England squad to face Canada, and he has been instrumental in Saints’ rise to third in the Premiership this term. Saints were brought back to reality against Finn Russell-inspired Racing 92 and a narrow loss out in Belfast, but spirits remain undimmed.

“It sounds corny but every single day I wake up, I love coming to work. Is it the boys at the club, is it the environment? I don’t know but I just love it.”

Paul Hill
Paul Hill lining up to face Australia on the successful 2016 tour (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Hill hasn’t always been as assured. He has ridden the professional rugby roller-coaster and has the mental scars to prove it. “When I first joined the Saints, I almost immediately got in the England squad and looking back, I don’t know if I handled it very well.  Some people said it was too much too soon. I remember Dorian West saying, through no fault of my own, I’d made a rod off my own back because I became a target at 21 when my scrummaging still had a long way to go. I had two years of hell because opposition props knew my name and they all wanted to topple ‘the guy who’s picked in the England squad’. As a result, I underperformed. What I needed was hours under the belt to learn my trade.”

“At times, I’d think, I’ve cracked it and then I’d come across someone and think, ‘Holy cow. He’s older than me, bigger than me and has more nous about him and there’s nothing I can do.’

When Chris Boyd came in in early 2018, Hill figured he had to take responsibility otherwise he’d become a burden to the team. “I did’t want to become a spare wheel at the club. The more rugby you play, the more you have to expand your role with the team otherwise you become a senior Academy player and no one wants that. You can take advice, but ultimately it comes down to you. Looking back, I appreciate I went through the mill, but it wasn’t plain sailing. In hindsight you appreciate the good times because you know they can soon be followed by the dark times.”

From packing down against looseheads of all shapes and sizes, Hill began to work out his strengths and work-ons. “At times, I’d think, I’ve cracked it and then I’d come across someone and think, ‘Holy cow. He’s older than me, bigger than me and has more nous about him and there’s nothing I can do.’

The technicalities of the front row, or in old money, ‘the dark arts’, are skills very few in the game really understand, but Hill says he’s starting to feel like he’s overcome his early-career growing pains. “Ultimately, you get to know what you’re good at. Am I a big heavy tighthead who likes to be in the hole and disrupt going across, or someone who likes to stay low and keep low? Am I someone who will go hard after the engage, or am I someone who likes to win the engage and keep the opposition pinned? That’s stuff you can only learn the hard way and those tiny, fractional changes in your approach can have a massive effect.”

Paul Hill
Paul Hill trains alongside Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler in 2017 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

As he waxes lyrical, you don’t need to wonder if there was a Mastermind specialist subject, whether Hill would pick scrummaging. “I attack after the hit, you see. I’m quite tall, and I’m not the heaviest, around 122-123kgs, but when you’re meeting guys who are 130kgs plus, you have to have something in your armoury. My point of difference is my speed across the gap. I keep them pinned and take them low. If analysts watched me closely for two or three games they’d pick that up. It’s no secret.”

As for the canniest looseheads around, Hill says one encounter stood out. “There’s this fella at Wasps, I think he’s called ‘Bomber’ Hislop. He pulled loads of tricks on me. He made me overbalance, sit back. I think we gave away four scrum penalties! At every scrum he brought a new technique. He’s had lots of experience at Championship level and they can be as hard as the Prem. Some of the boys don’t get round the pitch as well, but they turn it on at the scrum.”

I’ve booked on a welder’s course in the New Year and I’ll be doing an electrician’s course next September, so I’m thinking of going on the tools when I retire. Woody (Tom Wood) and Waller (Alex Waller) have cornered the market on Northampton woodwork so I thought I’d pitch in with another trade.

Despite the lilting Yorkshire-brogue, Hill wasn’t born in England, but Aschaffenburg. It was down to circumstance of his father Gary meeting Doris, his German mum in Bavaria. A fluent German speaker, his grandparents still live there and he was a frequent visitor before the travails of Covid hit. A move to Otley at 18 saw him up sticks again, but after a peripatetic upbringing, he now feels Northampton is home and is already looking to the future, post-rugby. “I did English at university but it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t see a future in it. Now I’ve booked on a welder’s course in the New Year and I’ll be doing an electrician’s course next September, so I’m thinking of going on the tools when I retire. Woody (Tom Wood) and Waller (Alex Waller) have cornered the market on Northampton woodwork so I thought I’d pitch in with another trade. Sitting in an office all day just isn’t me.”

Paul Hill
Paul Hill celebrates with Saints team-mates after picking up the Premiership Cup (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

For the near future, he can be assured of his profession and if he looks around the Saints dressing room, he feels sure footed. “Boydy (Chris Boyd) is always thinking. He’s quite relaxed but he keeps everyone in line. In essence, he coaches the coaches, a proper DoR. Anyone who spends 20 minutes with Dan (Biggar) will know how driven he is and he’s worth his weight in gold. On the pitch he’s tough and drives standards, but off it he can just switch off in an instant, which is a real skill. Of the younger boys, our lock Alex Coles punches well above his weight in terms of rugby knowledge for someone in his early twenties. I think he’s got a bright future. The same goes for Dingers (Fraser Dingwall). When he came in, we all thought he was older than he was because he spoke so clearly, he galvanises that backline. Then we have boys like Ollie (Sleightholme) and Furbs (George Furbank), who are brilliantly gifted players.

I’m certainly not going to kick Eddie’s door down and demand I get picked because that’s not going to help anyone.

With six England caps over five years, Hill, says he’s hopeful he can force his way back into contention ahead of France 2023. “It’s funny. I’ve been in and out of training camps and had years where I haven’t heard a dickie bird but I got the call-up for the Canada game, which was fantastic. The top and tail of it is you can’t guess that stuff, so I take it year by year. If I’m performing here at Saints, I’m in the mix. If I play crap for the Saints, they ain’t going to pick me and there are no hard feelings. I’m certainly not going to kick Eddie’s door down and demand I get picked because that’s not going to help anyone.”

For now, Hill seems happy with his lot. The quiz master has found his answers.

 

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