“So, Steve Hill, what else have you done besides being Director of Rugby here at Richmond?”
“Well, at one time I was regularly abused in ripe language for a living.” “What? You used to wash windscreens at traffic lights?” More on that later, and one must assume his current post is a step up from such tribulations, but judging by the look on his face when results don’t go his way then there might just be times when it isn’t.
To begin at the beginning, he’s 52 and was born in Bexleyheath, Kent to a GLC surveyor Dad and a housewife Mum, with a brother two years younger who’s now a Head of Music. He played Number 8 and skipper for his grammar school, and for Kent U16s, London U16s and was a fi nal trialist for England U16s, which begs the question what happened after his 17th birthday – wine, women, song and fags, maybe? Or was he pining for soccer, which he played in his earlier years as a Centre Half with a passion for Chelsea – good man!
He joined Sidcup as a junior, and kept up his links with the club when he went to Loughborough to do Phys Ed and History, with a 4th year in Teacher Training when he won his Kent cap as an 8 and played in the back row with one Michael Skinner Esq, aka Micky the Munch. To balance the record, on the academic side his dissertation was on the English Civil War in Kent, would you believe? 1652 to 1661. And not a lot of people know that.
Playing U19s for Sidcup he got an invite to join Blackheath Colts, at that time captained by Jamie Salmon, and his rugby career looked promising until he dislocated his shoulder for the third time and ended up with an operation to put metal pins in it. Advised that playing big time rugby was unlikely to figure too prominently in his future he scratched the itch by introducing the game to the Essex School where he was then teaching, but even so the prospect of life without a high level involvement in the game caused him to reconsider his options and a move overseas looked like a good idea.
An advertisement in the Times Education supplement offering teaching contracts in Kuwait caught his attention and he first met his wife, Christine, at the interviews. She was there for a similar job. They both got jobs, both got pinged by Cupid’s arrow, they married six months later, and now have two daughters.
Steve's best win
Arriving in the Middle East the guy handing out visa papers passed on the message that there’s rugby training ‘tomorrow’, and though Steve thought his playing days were essentially done and dusted it was a case of what the hell. Now there will be quite a few of us at RFC with very fond, if necessarily hazy memories of expat rugby and expat life in general – it’s something else, it really is, and Kuwait Exiles was seemingly no exception. For instance the club fixer had a red Bentley and was an expert at mixing Eth and Coke. Eth as in Ethanol - remember this is the Middle East.
Steve and the rest of the victorius Kuwait Nomads RFC back row - having just won the Arabian Gulf Championshipff
Steve ‘loved’ Kuwait. He found himself Head of 5th form after being just one lesson ahead of the kids in his early days there, and had something of a rugby resurrection as player/coach in matches around the region, even representing the Gulf in the Hong Kong 7s. His first game of the tournament was against New Zealand and Zinzan Brooke, but oddly he forgot to tell me how he got on.
Steve and brother Gary celebrating winning the Bahrain 15's. The first time Kuwait had ever won that tournament
Summer leave allowed him the opportunity to attend coaching courses back in the UK, and that’s where he was, about to return to Kuwait when....... moustachioed camel flatulence Saddam Hussein invaded, and that was the end of that. Game over. Tough times for a while, with Christine doing supply teaching and Steve even trying his hand at selling life assurance policies until his conscience got the better of him. So back to teaching, and at a ‘special needs’ school, too.
That’s where he had to endure the Anglo-Saxon pleasantries mentioned at the start of this piece.
But the rugby compensated to some degree. He’d gone back to Sidcup and was subsequently approached by Old Askeans, a level 3 club and made ‘an offer he couldn’t refuse’ (nudge, wink) to become their player/coach, staying with them for four seasons. Told to follow his heart in terms of full-time coaching he took advice from Messrs Ashton, Diamond and Best and went for it just as the game was going pro in ’96.
Dick Best gave him a chance at Quins as Front 5 Coach, with a front row featuring Leonard and Wood, and it’s a mark of his self-confidence and ability that these legends cheerfully accepted him - mind you, Woody and Jason never needed too much telling how to do their jobs.
But he didn’t stay too long as the travelling proved onerous and he wanted a full-time post, so when he came across an ad for DOR at Oxford University which offered it, off he went.
He started with the self-funded OURFC in September ’96 and stayed 14 years in contractual stages of 5/3/3/3 years, reporting to the President and Chairman though in reality being in full control with one exception – the picking of the skipper each year.
The chosen man has final selection say for the Varsity match which entitles the player to a much-coveted ‘Blue’, and Steve says winning this cap is the real aspiration even more than winning the match itself. Most often even the most talented players get only one shot at a Blue and that’s it, full stop. In a single season with Oxford you go from two men and a dog round a mud-hole pitch to a teeming, lubricated horde at Twickenham, and in his second season the attendance of 67000 was a then world club record. The playing cycle usually started pre-season with OURFC invited all over the world – six times in Japan, in Australia, the US, Argentina and Italy amongst other exotic spots, followed by about ten home games leading up to the Varsity.
He started when Oxford were having a poor run and had lost three in a row to Cambridge, He said he’d turn that round within three years. He lost the next two, and as neither side had ever lost six on the trot, and to keep his promise, in the ‘98 match he had to win. 10 – 3 down at half time and ten minutes from the whistle they didn’t look like they had a cat in hell’s chance. He couldn’t watch and says he ‘prayed’, but the Deity was wearing dark blue that day and they won it.
Another famous game he recalls was a warm-up for the Australians – 16 days to arrange it from scratch, 8500 punters at Iffley Road, 211 tackles made by Oxford and only 6 points adrift with 20 minutes to go. They lost 36 – 18, but, dammit, it was an Australian side featuring Gregan, Larkham and Joe Roff – who so enjoyed his visit he returned to study and to subsequently play in the OURFC side.
It all ended rather sadly with a redundancy (without direct replacement, of course) and he says it was a difficult way to finish but a week later he got the call from RFC and a meeting followed with Messrs Corben and Moore. He’d already been offered Head of Rugby at a famous school but he’d never coached in the Leagues, he already knew half a dozen ex OURFC players here, and anyway liked what he saw so he came to us.
It’s worth mentioning that he has an ongoing agreement with RFC to continue to coach the Penguins, a renowned invitational side which has toured 68 countries so far – hang on, I’ll check my notes. Yep, he said 68.
He says he’ll continue to coach as long as people want him to, and the rugby excites him just as much as it always did – saying it’s a wonderful game with wonderful values and he particularly enjoys the player development aspect. And specifically here at Richmond!
Most of us who give any thought to RFC know that our club, as currently set up, is probably nudging the upper limits of what is reasonably possible in terms of First XV achievement, but he’s a realist who also fully buys into, and gets, a real buzz and great satisfaction from the ‘whole club’ ethos and The Richmond Way.
He’s enjoying himself......when we win!
But what if we weren’t here? What if RFC disappeared? Then it would be back to unfinished business, back to the expat life, back to the Eth ‘n’ Coke!
Paul Grindrod - December 2013.