The last 12 months for Jonny Hill have been nothing short of sensational.
The Exeter Chiefs lock lifted the European and Premiership double with his club at the end of 2019/2020 season before making his international debut for England in the Six Nations.
His first cap for his country against Italy ended in a Championship winners’ medal before the 27-year-old helped Eddie Jones’ men win the Autumn Nations Cup later that year.
Preview: Sigma Lions v The British & Irish Lions
More Six Nations appearances followed in 2021, along with another Premiership final appearance, while Hill was also selected for his first-ever British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa.
He will make his Lions bow in the Tour opener against Sigma Lions and Hill believes his remarkable rise all started with a hole-in-one at Exeter Golf and Country.
“Actually, this time last year, I got a hole in one in golf, my first ever one which was a good achievement and that’s where it all started really,” said the towering lock.
“We all trained like madmen in lockdown, all the Exeter lads, there was nothing else to do so we just training in our own houses after getting loads of gear sent to us.
“When we came back to playing in the Premiership in August, I remember Rob Baxter saying to us you boys look ready to go and we were like, ‘We were ready months ago’.
“We went on to win the two trophies and then I went off the next weekend and was part of the Six Nations squad that won that title and then four weeks later we won the Autumn Nations Cup.
“We did it the hard way but it was another win. We battled away through the next club season, which was up and down, it wasn’t all plain sailing and we lost a couple of important games.
“It was then the Six Nations and that definitely wasn’t plain sailing, I went in there with big plans and I remember driving home after that feeling disappointed with how it had gone for me.
“I went back to the club, went back to basics, playing the way I always want to play and it was important for me to do that and we had a couple of European games against Lyon.
Hogg: Lions captaincy won’t change my approach
“Then we got knocked out by Leinster so we were back on the floor again and had to pick ourselves back up and we won some decent Premiership games after that.
“We built on into the end of the year and it felt like we had some good momentum coming and we came up short in the Premiership final, so it’s been a great year but it could have been better.”
Chiefs were beaten 40-38 by Harlequins in a thrilling Premiership final before Hill joined up with the Lions, leaving the Ludlow-born forward little time to feel sorry for himself.
And while Hill admitted it is never easy getting over such a defeat, he said he was able to put that disappointment behind him quickly as he turned his attention to learning his Lions lineout calls.
“I think it’s as hard as you want to make it, it’s definitely a case of just letting things go and getting on with it so no one else is going to pick me up apart from myself,” he said.
“I just have to get on with it and throw myself into a new attacking shape, a new lineout calling system and I’ve got so much engagement to have in terms of learning everything.
“I’m having to focus and concentrate constantly which is exactly what I need. It has been challenging coming in and being on the back foot, having to learn everything.
“It’s something we’re all used to as international players, going from clubs into different environments and playing for England there are always things changing, new calls.”
Sigma Lions have promised the tourists a physical battle in Johannesburg – a theme Warren Gatland’s men will have to get used to ahead of the Test series against the Springboks.
The Lions’ last visit to the country in 2009 ended in a bruising series defeat and having played with and against his fair share of South Africans, Hill knows exactly what to expect.
“We have spoken about setting a marker out at the set-piece within the forwards and then wherever our marker is set, we can keep building on it, keep building on it,” he said.
“It’s hugely important as the Springboks are a side that have won huge games just from their set-piece so it’s a thing in these games they are going to target and we need to target as well.
“I have no doubts whatsoever we have the firepower to beat them. There are some familiar faces in there with Faf de Klerk, Coenie Oosthuizen and the Du Preez lads.
Gallery: Lions prepare for opening Tour match
“They are a very physical side and there’s no secrets to the way South Africans play the game, I play alongside two, three, four South African lads at Chiefs.
“I know how they are made up. We know what is coming. There is a lot of South African lads in the league and you always have an awareness of them, what they can do physically.”
Hill will follow in some illustrious footsteps when he makes his Lions debut, a fact that is not lost on the Chiefs man having grown up watching videos of Paul O’Connell in particular.
“There’s one guy that stuck out for me, Paul O’Connell. His leadership amongst the squads that came on Tours, I remember watching videos of him,” he added.
“They are the sort of people I have always looked up to, Paul, Martin Johnson, Alun Wyn Jones as well, proper big names and I’m honoured to be in the shirt they’ve worn.”