England rookie Chandler Cunningham-South was being mentored for weeks by Richard Hill without knowing he was talking to a World Cup winner.
Cunningham-South made a strong debut off the bench in Saturday’s 27-24 victory over Italy, becoming one of two flankers to win their first cap in the Guinness Six Nations opener alongside Ethan Roots.
As England team manger with the additional role of talent identification for the pathway, Hill has influenced the rise of both players as well as the likes of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry.
Hill’s keen eye for future Test stars is valued highly by head coach Steve Borthwick, who revealed when naming his Six Nations squad last month that “if Richard tells me to track a back-row forward, I’m listening”.
Cunningham-South had Hill’s approval when on England Under-20 duty but presumed he was speaking to a random enthusiast rather than one of the country’s greatest flankers and a veteran of 71 Tests, including the triumphant 2003 World Cup final.
“There was no doubt that, as an 18-year-old, Chandler’s physicality of carry was not quite the norm for his age compared to others that I was watching,” said Hill, who was initially alerted to him by his first club London Irish.
“He was doing fantastically well so I made sure that I connected with him at the Under-20s training sessions.
“I carried on chatting to him and then after a number of meetings that I’d had with him, Jonathan Fisher, Irish’s academy coach, decided to ring me after a chance meeting.
“John said that Chandler has just told him how he turns out to Under-20s training and ‘a couple of times this guy’s come up to me and you know, he’s had a chat about my game’.
Player of the Match on his England debut… 🥇
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 5, 2024
“’He seems to understand how to play and he’s got some reasonable ideas. You know, he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about’. So yeah, that was me!
“He found out probably three months ago that I played in the World Cup. Chandler’s not that fussed about what’s gone on in the past.
“He wanted to know why I didn’t tell him. I said it had no bearing on what we’re trying to achieve, which was him, not me.”
While Cunningham-South’s 14-minute cameo against Italy was rich with promise, Roots was close to the finished article in being named man of the match following a superb display at blindside flanker.
Borthwick first became aware of Roots when he was coaching Leicester against the Ospreys but it was when Hill showed him footage of the 26-year-old cage fighter playing for Exeter during last autumn’s World Cup that he really took notice.
— Guinness Men's Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 4, 2024
Fast forward five months and the Chiefs forward is part of Borthwick’s England rebuild, providing vital carrying muscle to a side that is short on defence-busting power.
“If there is someone of interest for the future then I’d make Steve aware – and Ethan was one of those players,” Hill said.
“I knew he had a skill set that would interest us – he can carry the ball, carrying into contact, heavy contact, and defensively physical at the breakdown.
“He has been physical and consistent in terms of the performances he put in since joining Exeter this season.”
Roots is expected to continue in the number six jersey for Saturday’s visit of Wales to Twickenham, with Borthwick naming his team on Thursday afternoon.