Lions star ready to roar back into action
By Mark Stevens
As one of Exeter’s four returning British & Irish Lions, Jonny Hill is ready to roar back into action for the Chiefs when they play host to Worcester Warriors this afternoon.
In what has certainly been a year to remember for the towering lock, the 27-year-old admits even he’s ready to hit the reset button and pen a new and exciting chapter in his career.
Not that he’s ready to close shop on his achievements of the past 12 months too soon. From helping Rob Baxter’s side to a historic English and European double, Hill was then thrust into the international picture, featuring in England’s Autumn Nations Cup and Six Nations campaigns.
With his playing stock rising by the week, Hill was putting together some notable performances on the big stage. Whether it be for club or country, there were plenty who were impressed by the way he was going about his work.
As he helped the Chiefs reach a sixth successive Gallagher Premiership final, all the talk was of others within the Exeter camp being touted for potential inclusion in Warren Gatland’s Lions squad for the summer tour to South Africa.
Rightly or wrongly, Hill was not on the radar for many pundits when they were piecing together their list for those likely to tour. Hill, however, chose to keep his cards close to his chest, not even daring to mention it to even his closest of team-mates.
“I had the email, but I kept it to myself,” he explained. “I didn’t think I would get in, purely because I thought others had played better in the Six Nations, but then May 6 came and I was named. It was an unbelievable moment and one I’ll never forget.”
If that was the high point of the year, not long after Hill had the low of being part of a Chiefs side who surrendered their Premiership crown to Harlequins at Twickenham.
“I’ve had a lot of highs over the year,” he added. “Being part of the Chiefs and all of their success, it was special for all of us. But, when you are part of a successful side like that, you always want more. Winning the double was a great achievement, but we had to move on.
“We got to the final again against Harlequins, but we came up short on the day. That was really disappointing for all of us, but I think it’s put more fire in our bellies to try and respond this season.”
Unlike many of his club-mates, Hill didn’t have long to wallow in the disappointment of their Twickenham torment. Instead, he was boarding a plane within 24 hours and heading to South Africa, ready to be part of the whole Lions experience.
Alongside fellow Chiefs Stuart Hogg, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds, the quartet were ready to play their part in tackling the reigning world champions on their own turf.
This tour, however, was unlike that of any other previous Lions trip. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic meant the legion of supporters who normally travel half the globe to create a sea of red remained back home on their sofas in the four home nations.
The players themselves were restricted to a stringent bubble that offered little insight away from their training ground, team hotel and that of their match-day venue. In essence, it was a tour like never before!
Hill, though, wanted to make the most of the opportunity given to him.
When called upon by Gatland for the warm-up fixtures, the Ludlow-born forward did not disappoint, even scoring a try for the tourists in their win over the DHL Stormers.
However, the return of captain Alun Wyn Jones just prior to the opening Test meant Hill’s chance of selection diminished. Indeed, he would not feature in any of the three fixtures against the Springboks, who eventually won the series 2-1.
“It was disappointing not to play in any of the Tests, but sometimes that’s how it goes,” said Hill. “For me, I’m still very proud of the fact that I went on the tour and was part of the squad. It was something I had only ever dreamed about.”
Now back in Devon, rested and refreshed after his mandatory break, Hill is ready to get back into the heat of battle, starting with the visit of the Warriors.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “Worcester, we know, are a side who are definitely improving. I’ve looked at footage of them and they carry a lot of threats. Equally, so do we. We had a good win at Sale last weekend and the lads really dug in up there.
“Sale is always a tough place to go and they took real lumps out of us, particularly the first half, so to get the four points was massive. Now, we need to take the momentum of that game into this weekend and look to build again.”