Jonny Hill was always destined to reach the very top of his profession, he just needed the occasional push along the way to truly achieve his full potential.
A towering presence from an early age, the Exeter Chiefs second-rower’s rugby journey started at Herefordshire-based Luctonians after being inspired by his uncle, Paul Loughlin.
Loughlin played Rugby League for St Helens, Bradford Bulls, Huddersfield Giants and Great Britain before ending his career with Swinton Lions at the turn of the millennium.
British & Irish Lions Player Profile: #845 Jonny Hill
Hill used to watch his uncle in action a lot growing up and aspired to be just like him, resulting in him going down to Luctonians where he played mini rugby from the age of nine.
“Growing up my mum’s a twin and her twin brother was Paul Loughlin, who played Rugby League in the eighties and the early nineties,” recalls Ludlow-born Hill.
“He played for St. Helens, Bradford Bulls and he was lucky enough to go on a couple of GB tours. Growing up I always idolised him, he played Rugby League but I always used to pick his brains.
“I always wanted to try out rugby so I went down to Luctonians when I was nine years old. I went down there and played a little bit with my brother who was in the U13s.
“We went down on a Sunday morning and that’s how it kind of started, just kicking the ball around. Fond memories but I do still remember going down there on really, really cold mornings.
“I remember sometimes not wanting to get out of the car [because it was so cold] and dad was like pushing me out, ‘No, go on, you’ll enjoy it’ and I did to be fair.”
Having been gifted with a height advantage over his peers, Hill continued to progress through the ranks at Luctonians until youth coach Simon Green-Price encouraged him to take the next step.
Green-Price suggested Hill attend a walk-up trial at Hartpury College, where he ended up spending two seasons as a first-team regular and found himself on the radar of Gloucester Rugby.
“Having spoken to my club Luctonians, they are very proud. I’ve spoken to Simon Green-Price quite a lot, my old coach, he’s a guy that pushed me towards going to Hartpury,” he said.
“He pushed me to go and give rugby a proper crack. He told me I had things that he couldn’t coach, which was height, so he kind of pushed me off the diving board a little bit.
“I had to go and swim. I’ve got to this point and I think they are very proud of the achievement.”
Hill just missed out on England U20’s 2014 World Junior Championship title run in 2014 before sustaining an ankle injury which kept him out of the game for 18 months.
During that time, he was approached by Exeter Chiefs, where his career has gone from strength to strength ever since making first team debut in 2016 – playing a major role in the club’s historic Premiership and European double in 2019/20.
But while Luctonians would be well within their right to bask in Hill’s glory, Green-Price insists that the Lions Origin Club was only doing what every club should be striving to do.
Lions Origin Clubs are those that have helped shape the future of the Lions by producing and guiding players on their rugby journey
“There are an awful lot of people that are claiming alongside me that we made all the difference and that it’s through us that it’s happened,” explained Green-Price.
“I’ve got probably about another 16 people queued up who claim that but [Jonny] was always destined with his size – if pointed in the right direction, obviously – to go down that route.
“So yes it’s an enormous sense of pride and that’s why we do it, that’s why clubs like this – you know, any club worth it’s salt should be looking to guide young players to play at the top level.
“Rather than holding them back to play in their first team at a meagre National Two Level.”
Hill’s performances for Chiefs earned him international recognition at the end of 2020, making his debut alongside Maro Itoje in England’s delayed Six Nations title-decider in Italy.
Having helped England become Six Nations champions with his first cap, he came off the bench a few weeks later as they defeated France to also be crowned Autumn Nations Cup winners.
The 27-year-old lock has been ever-present for Eddie Jones ever since his whirlwind introduction but even Hill was taken aback when he discovered he was to become a British & Irish Lion.
“The call-up day is a day that I’ll never, ever forget,” said Hill.
“I kind of just collapsed on the floor and just broke down into tears. I didn’t realise that Sam Simmonds was in the squad until after the whole thing because I was just a mess.
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“I was like that for four or five minutes and it’s a day I’ll honestly never, ever forget.”
Hill made his Lions debut in the opening Tour match in South Africa – where he had previously toured with England in 2018 as an unused squad member – against the Sigma Lions.
He also started the thumping 71-31 victory over Cell C Sharks before finishing a superb team move for his first Lions try in the 49-3 triumph over the DHL Stormers – making memories that will last a lifetime.
“The Lions means everything,” he added. “It’s an opportunity to be on the world stage but in a different kind of environment, with the best players, across four of the best countries in the world.
“To be selected out of a pool of hundreds of players is so special to me.
“It always makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”