The recent Summer Internationals were a source of great positivity for Wales, with Warren Gatland’s men extending their winning streak to five games with victories over South Africa and Argentina twice.
There were plenty of plus points for the team as a whole, but it is in the individual performances that Warren Gatland and his coaching staff will be most pleased. The depth being developed within the squad is very impressive just over a year out from the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Particularly of note for me, not just the summer but over the international season in general, have been the performances of Dragons second row Cory Hill, as he has stepped up to the national team and put in a serious challenge to partner Alun Wyn Jones at lock.
Now, I’ll be honest from the off, I’ve been critical of Hill’s selection in the past. With my blue tinted glasses I believe that Seb Davies should have been given as much game time alongside AWJ as possible in the autumn, and then in the second row generally this summer. However, it has now become difficult to ignore the all-round game of Hill.
Perhaps most obvious is the general skill level that the Dragons captain has with ball-in-hand, which I like to think is a direct result of his time spent in the Cardiff Blues academy, of course.
Hill, for a big tight forward, has an uncanny ability to be aware of space outside him, and further to that is able to put players into that space when he has ball-in-hand.
With a deceptive turn of pace he can do what some Welsh backs find difficult despite being one of the simpler skills in rugby, simply draw the defender and make space on the outside. It is for this reason that he fits so well into the new and improved fluid attacking system Wales are operating with, as well as his handling skills.
As well as his adeptness in the wider channels, Hill is also comfortable stepping in at first receiver and making the decision to either pop pass to a forward outside him, or utilise the screen option and pull the ball back to the playmaker in a bit of space to create an attack outside.
When you look at Scarlets, who the Wales model is based on, the upskilling of forwards is a key element of the gameplan. The success of Taidhg Beirne in the ball playing lock role has been a big positive for them, and although Hill isn’t quite on that level, he is playing a similar role, getting his hands on the ball on average 11 times per game since the start of November.
It’s not all flicks and tricks for Cory Hill though, no matter how attention grabbing they are. No, the real impressive nature of his play is in the blood and thunder attritional stuff. Where second rows have to stick their heads into painful looking contact and drag their huge frames from pillar to post.
Throughout the 12 games that I watched since the Autumn that Hill has featured in, no player hit more attacking breakdowns in that time than the Pontypridd-born man.
Of course there are the headline hits, as shown above where he swipes well positioned jackaling defenders out of the way, but the majority are just simply getting to the breakdown first and sealing off the tackled player, just as in the third clip.
The reason for that is two-fold; surprising agility for a 6ft5, 18.5st man, and an incredibly high work rate to get between breakdowns, often for 80 minutes with Alun Wyn Jones’ legs not quite taking him the distance in international games these days.
This work rate is an asset in attack, but it is in defence where it shows the most, and it is when Wales are without the ball that Hill’s leadership credentials, that have made him a part of the Welsh player leadership group, come to the fore.
Throughout the games that I watched only Hill for this analysis, he was an almost ever present at the fringe of the breakdown, either at guard or bodyguard, or in the new position we are seeing teams employ a defender directly behind the breakdown to avoid the disguised pick-and-go that the likes of Nick Williams use to such great effect at Cardiff Blues.
From these positions he sets the defensive line outside him in terms of spacing and is the inside lead on the blitz that Shaun Edwards sets so effectively, having to read the opposition attack quickly and adjust his position whether they are coming one-off from nine, or going wide off 10.
Particularly in the second clip where, as shown above, his tracking around the breakdown puts him at guard at the start of the clip, then covering where it appears the fly-half has been tackled, so that he is in prime position to make the tackle when Argentina produce an offload.
Then at guard he is in the perfect position to put pressure on any errors at the back of the ruck, while dissuading a scrum-half like Ali Price of Scotland from sniping around the fringes of the breakdown.
When a side does choose to come short though, they are faced with Cory Hill the tackle machine contender.
Over the last 12 games he has got into double figures of tackles nine times, with three of the last 12 appearances being off the bench, averaging 11 tackles per game.
He is more than capable of holding up the ball carrier effectively, as has become a secret weapon of Wales in the last year or so, or dropping the ball carrier to the ground quickly and letting our talented back rowers secure the jackal.
The final impressive area of Hill’s game comes away from open play, and in the set piece after he led Wales’ lineout superbly in the Americas over the summer.
Consistently positioned as the middle lineout jumper, we return to Hill’s ability as the middle jumper often has to switch between lifting at the front, lifting at the back or jumping himself, while, as shown in the clip, being part of lineout routines when trying to secure attacking ball from the set piece.
More than just a jumper though, he clearly has an understanding of the wider area of the set piece, as a clever maul operator.
As the middle jumper he can be utilise in two ways at the lineout, either stepping towards the tail and offering quick ball off the top, or in a shorter lineout he can step forwards and set up a driving maul.
Hill is textbook in his ability to transfer the ball back quickly and then get his arms out to act as a pillar at the front of the maul, stopping any defenders trying to disrupt the drive and then acting as a focal point to spin the maul and get it moving forwards.
Unfortunately Wales as a unit are not renowned for their driving maul, despite having the makings of a side that could be, and forwards coach Robin McBryde would do well to look at this before next year’s World Cup.
That is a World Cup that, for Warren Gatland, could well have Cory Hill at the very heart of it as he packs down alongside Alun Wyn Jones in the second row.
With the aforementioned Seb Davies and fellow youngster Adam Beard snapping at his heels, as well as the returning Jake Ball and experience of Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies all in contention, it is a very competitive position.
However, Hill is undoubtedly in the driving seat at the moment, and at 26 he is still on the upward curve of his career. Another good season as part of a hopefully improving Dragons and a confident Wales side, and it would be a brave man who bets against the Cardiff Blues academy graduate* to start in Japan.
*Yes I did have to mention that.