An expert dropper of goals
April 6, 2012
England's Nim Hall is tackled by a French defender at Twickenham in 1953 © PA Photos
There can be little doubt that both teams from the previous day's France v England match woke up with hangovers 60 years ago, on April 6, 1952.
For England, the sore heads reflected the usual after-match celebrations of a team that had won in Paris. For the French it was as much reflection on a match that could have been won as anything they had consumed in later hours.
The key figure in the events of April 5 at the Stade Colombes was England captain Norman Macleod 'Nim' Hall, one of their most significant players in the immediate post-war era.
France, who had beaten England in both previous post-war clashes at Colombes, as well as winning for the first time at Twickenham in 1951, looked set for a fourth victory in five seasons when Lyon wing Michel Pomathios crossed in the first-half. Jean Prat missed the conversion, but France still looked likelier to build on their 3-0 lead than England were to hit back.
With France disrupted by an injury to their try-scorer, which reduced them to 14 men, England struck back after the break. This was a game made for Hall, who was more kicker than runner. O.L.Owen had written of him that, "As a tactical kicker, Hall was first-class in the stand-off position, but both as an inspiration and a maker of openings for his fellow backs, he was sadly lacking." Still, more than that, he was as Bleddyn Williams recalled, "an expert dropper of goals".
It was that skill that came to the fore then, as England were awarded a penalty just inside their own half. Hall was England's usual kicker, employing what journalists called a "soccer-style" approach of kicking with the instep rather than the toe end, better for accuracy than distance with the heavy balls of the era.
On this occasion he invoked the option, which still existed in 1952, of dropping for goal and stunned the entire crowd by nailing a vast kick to level the scores. His second penalty, to clinch England's 6-3 win, was from closer range and converted by more conventional means.
Hall, who was born in 1925, had come to the fore in the later years of the war as one of the stars of an exceptional St Mary's College team. As dean of the college, Lord Moran, also known as Winston Churchill's personal doctor, had shown even more than the usual medical school predilection for rugby players.
Hall first attracted wider notice in 1945, when his two drop goals, then worth four points apiece, enabled St Mary's to end Coventry's four-year, 72-match unbeaten run with an 8-3 victory. In 1946 he was England's chosen outside-half in all six Victory internationals, landing two more drops in the 25-15 win in Cardiff.
When the Five Nations resumed in 1947, he was a natural choice as England's outside-half - forming a St Mary's midfield triangle with Ted Scott and Billy Bennett - and marked his debut with yet another drop, the decisive score in their 9-6 victory in Cardiff.
The veteran Welsh writer Townsend Collins credited him with "brains as well as individual skills", while political writer Alan Watkins, who attended the match as a teenager, recalled his gaunt appearance, "He looked at death's door, even as a young man."
His England career was to have a peculiarly episodic quality. He won 17 caps over nine seasons, an oddity attributable in part to the tendency of England selectors to begin the process of making choices anew each season and rely far more on the impressions offered in trial matches than any previous evidence.
He did not play at all in 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1954. He might not have played in 1949 or 1952 either, but on each occasion was in a Rest team that defeated England in the final trial. On each occasion Hall found himself precipitated into an England team, not only as a player, but as captain.
Given the job in 1949, he was England's sixth captain in 10 postwar matches, Hall made a minor mark in the record books by dropping the first three-point drop-goal in international rugby, once more against Wales, following the devaluation from four points.
He lasted only two games before giving way both as outside-half and captain to Coventry's Ivor Preece, who retained both roles until the end of the 1950 Five Nations. The match in Paris proved to be Hall's last for England at outside-half. The pacy Martin Regan emerged through the trials for the 1952-3 season as the man England had been looking for.
At the same time England were looking for a fullback and evidently still saw Hall as a potential leader. Having faced Regan at outside-half in the first trial at Workington, Hall was fullback for the Possibles in the second trial at Exeter and for England in the final match at Twickenham.
The new formula worked. As Owen wrote, it meant that Hall's "undoubted other gifts as a footballer were made use of". A few weeks later he was England's first post-war outright Championship-winning captain. Even so, he was out again in 1954 before returning for two final matches - again as captain - in the following season.
Hall, who played his club rugby for Huddersfield (his home town) and Richmond, probably never encountered a more difficult opponent than the St Mary's examiners, ultimately falling victim to new rules demanding that students qualify within a certain number of years.
His value to England was unquestionable. Across nine seasons of selectorial indecision he was their most-capped back and top scorer, his total of 39 points from eight conversions, four penalties and three drops (two worth four points) remaining a post-war record until overtaken by Roger Hosen in 1967.
His 13 matches as captain matched the record set by Wavell Wakefield. It was subsequently matched by Eric Evans, Dickie Jeeps and John Pullin, but not overtaken until Bill Beaumont led England for the 14th time (of an eventual total of 21) in Cardiff in 1981.
Hall was also the most durable, in playing terms, of England's first post-war team. Of the others only flanker Don White, who made it to 1953, lasted to play international rugby in the 1950s. Life, sadly, was different. Hall was the first of an otherwise strikingly long-lived bunch - several are still alive 65 years after their England debuts - to die, at the age of 46 in 1972.
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