ESPN talks to Richard Hibbard
'I'm not really a talker, I'm a doer'
May 13, 2014
© Getty Images
It was just four minutes into the third Test between the British & Irish Lions and Australia when the Wallabies were camped about ten metres from the Lions' try line. Will Genia was surveying the area around the ruck and pinged a quick pass off his right hand to the on-rushing George Smith. Smith just about dodged Alun Wyn Jones' low attempted tackle but instead connected head on head with Richard Hibbard. Smith lay pole axed on the floor while Hibbard stood up, shook his head around a little bit, blonde hair flying, and re-focused. It is no sport for the faint-hearted.
"He hit the big part of the ridge on my forehead," Hibbard told ESPN. "He caught it by accident I think. I was more concerned that I was bounced off to be honest. I remember Alun Wyn half tackling him so I went in to finish him off, so to speak. But I thought 'oh no, he's bounced me here' but my head glanced him."
For both Smith and Hibbard it was one of the biggest games of their career. Smith wobbled off, clearly concussed, but returned later while Hibbard played through to the 47th minute before being replaced by Tom Youngs. Thirty-three minutes later and the Lions were celebrating their first series win since 1997. "There is no way of explaining how good it was. You cannot put it into words," said Hibbard ten months on after playing a key role in the Lions' win.
When Keith Wood was rampaging on Australian turf 12 years previous, Hibbard was watching on as the pupil. He played prop for Wales Under-18s, decided he did not like the front-row, tried out as a back-rower and then returned as a hooker.
The battle of the blonde hair © Getty Images
"I can't remember who said it but it was something along the lines of 'you can be a good back-row or a quality front-rower'. The first year at hooker was torrid, it was my first year as a senior . I had to learn about 50 different techniques of throwing. It was an interesting transition but I spent hours throwing the ball at bars, hoops, people while finding different grips. When you have a set routine you're happy. You can't teach it."
As baptisms of fire go, Hibbard's debut for the Ospreys in 2004 was a sizeable task. It came against Munster on a horrible night at Musgrave Park in an ill-tempered match where Ryan Jones was red carded for stamping on Donnacha O'Callaghan. With wind and rain lashing down on the players, the set piece went to pot but Hibbard got through it though it was his opposite number, Frankie Sheehan, who got the winning score. "It was a good experience, it was tough" says Hibbard looking back on it, a match he played a week before his 19th birthday.
It was a quick learning experience for the young Hibbard. Alongside goal kickers, if a hooker has an off day in the lineout they are likely to be singled out for criticism. It was something Hibbard had to get used to. "It does get to you. If the lineout goes belly up because the jumper misses the ball or the lifter misses his man, it is still the hooker's fault in the public eye. You do beat yourself up. It's good to be tough on yourself as you always try and improve."
And improve he did though he still had to take his brunt of criticism. In 2012 he was omitted from the Six Nations squad. Instead of putting his arm around Hibbard, then Ospreys boss Scott Johnson threw him to the wolves. "There's a side to Richard which we love and there's a side that lets him down. Physically, sometimes, he lets himself down."
"That was a long time ago," Hibbard remembers. "It was a strange thing at the time but it was a good kick in the arse. I wanted to prove people wrong and after that it went upwards for me. I went to Australia."
And in the space of a few months his form rapidly picked up, leading Jonathan Humphreys, a man who knows a thing or two about playing hooker, to declare Hibbard the "best hooker in Europe". He had turned excess cushioning into muscle and offered a physicality few could rival. It is still that part of his game which he relishes the most today.
"I really enjoyed the game against South Africa back in November. It was mental, physical and I love that confrontation. That's when I'm happiest, the more physical and confrontational the better.
"You hardly ever realise what's happening when you go in for a tackle. You just have to put it out there. The more you try and hit hard, the better you come off. When you start worrying or thinking too much, you are likely to come off worse."
It is that physicality and his consistent form at hooker which saw Gloucester offer Hibbard a three-year contract. He comes with a solid pedigree; he is a Lions hooker with 31 Wales caps and a reputation as one of Europe's top performers. It was a "massive decision" for Hibbard, in his own words. The move will see him call time on 10 years at the Ospreys and also leave his family behind for part of the week as they will stay in Port Talbot while he mixes his time between Gloucester and Wales. There were a number of reasons behind his decision to swap leagues and clubs with the uncertainty in Wales one contributing factor - "You don't know what the hell's going on".
Richard Hibbard enjoys his moment with Lions © Getty Images
But it was a tough call as he also has a business interest close to home having taken over an estate agents in Neath with his business partner Carl Clement. Though do not expect to see Hibbard any time soon with clipboard in hand showing prospective tenants around properties, it is not something he has attempted quite yet.
"If I was ever going to leave the Ospreys, now was the time. I wanted to go somewhere where it was all about rugby and a traditional club. The atmosphere roped me in as well. It will be strange though and it'll be tough being away from mates and family but it's for the best. I spoke to Mefin Davies and he said it was one of the best decisions of his life. I'm delighted with my decision."
Hibbard eagerly watched the recent, fiery West Country derby between his new employers and Bath and although he is currently injured, every fibre of his being wanted to be out there embracing the physicality. In the past when he has played in front of the infamous Shed he cannot recall any particular instances of banter but playing in front of it is something he is looking forward to alongside running out against Bath - he has already been informed by friend and former Ospreys team-mate Paul James he is going to get "beaten up".
The priority for Hibbard is rehabilitation on his shoulder injury and then thoughts will firmly turn to Gloucester, where he will be working under a new coach and not the one who signed him. But what they have not signed is a talker, but someone who will lead from the front with his body put firmly on the line.
"I don't really get nervous pre-match, but there is a focus of not wanting to let anyone down. You want to keep the high standards up. I don't go silent or anything but you do think. I'm not really a talker, I'm a doer. I leave the talking to the talking and I just focus on doing my best around the park."
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.