Hill's chance to shine
By Steve Grace
There are breakthrough seasons – and then there are breakthrough seasons.
For a signpost of just how impressive an Aviva Premiership Rugby campaign Jonny Hill produced in 2017-18, you need look no further than his England call-up for the national team’s summer tour of South Africa.
He may not have been involved in Saturday’s 42-39 defeat at Ellis Park in Johannesburg but being given the nod by Eddie Jones to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Saracens’ Maro Itoje and Wasps’ Joe Launchbury will give him all the encouragement he needs that his career trajectory is set on an undoubtedly upward curve.
But it could all have been so different.
Hill, who turned 24 last week, arrived to the game late, renewing a serious interest in rugby at the age of 17 and although that eventually led him to Gloucester Rugby by way of Hartpury College, injury woes threatened to put the mockers on his career before it had ever really taken flight.
A fractured ankle was largely to blame for hampering his efforts to break into the first-team picture at Kingsholm but at Exeter, he already had a fan in forwards coach Rob Hunter and a moved to Devon in 2015.
There were more dark days to come as the spectre of injury continued to haunt Hill during the start of his new lease of life at Sandy Park but his debut arrived against his old club Gloucester in January 2016.
In his time with the Chiefs, Hill has been part of a side that has made it to three successive Aviva Premiership Rugby Finals – and his influence has grown exponentially.
At 6ft 7in and weighing in at 17st 7lb, the Exeter man threw his weight around to some effect in 2017-18, completing more than 150 carries while pulling off 185 tackles.
Hill helped himself to five tries, including a brace against Harlequins in November and another one in the Chiefs’ narrow 20-18 win at Bath Rugby in Round 18 – he was among the nominations for the club’s player of the year award.
He played the full 80 minutes as Exeter went toe-to-toe with Saracens in last month’s Final at Twickenham Stadium but he wasn’t able to prevent Rob Baxter’s team from relinquishing the Aviva Premiership Rugby crown to the north Londoners.
No matter, though – as far as England chief Jones is concerned, Hill has earmarked himself as one of the country’s most promising locks and it would be hard to argue with him.
With two more matches to follow during England’s three-tour Test series, who would bet against Hill featuring in some capacity?
After all, he’s no stranger to a breakthrough.