Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Dan Sheridan/INPHO Hill only made his England debut last year.
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Hole-in-one, looking up to POC, and physical battles - Hill's rise to the Lions
The England lock gets a start for the Lions this weekend.

THIS TIME LAST year, Jonny Hill wasn’t an England international.

Now he’s a Lion.

It has been a whirlwind past 12 months for the 27-year-old, who will start in the second row for Warren Gatland’s side against the Golden Lions on Saturday. Hill’s chances of featuring in the Tests against South Africa have been boosted by Alun Wyn Jones’ injury.

When he reflects on the last year, Hill can easily pinpoint the moment that everything changed.

“This time last year – tomorrow actually – I got a hole-in-one in golf. My first ever one. That was a good achievement and that’s where it all started really,” says Hill with a laugh.

“It was a par 3, 120 yards with a pitching wedge. I didn’t thin it either, a nice bit of a fade on it and it rolled in.”

Joking aside, Hill acknowledges that his career has taken a rapid leap forward since 2020.

“We all trained like madmen in lockdown, the Exeter lads,” explains Hill. “There was nothing to do, so we just trained in our own houses.

“We got loads of gear sent to us and 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, Rob.’

“We went on to win the two trophies and then I went off the next weekend to be part of the Six Nations squad that won that title.”

jonny-hill Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Hill is a key man for Exeter Chiefs. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Hill’s Test debut came in the Six Nations victory over Italy last October, then he helped England to the Autumn Nations Cup just a few weeks later.

But 2021 hasn’t been plain sailing, as Hill points out. He was starting for England but they had a poor Six Nations, while Exeter lost in the Champions Cup quarter-finals to Leinster and the Premiership final to Harlequins last weekend.

Hill didn’t have long to mull over that defeat at Twickenham, instead catching a flight to South Africa with the Lions the following day as the excitement of being one of the touring squad kicked in.

He has long been a Lions fan and, given his position, the players he looked up to aren’t a huge surprise.

“There’s one guy that stuck out to me – Paul O’Connell,” says Hill.

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“His leadership amongst the squads that came on tour, I remember watching videos of him. They’re the people I’ve always looked up to, Paul and Martin Johnson and Alun Wyn Jones as well.

“I’m honoured to be in the shirt that they’ve worn.”

The be-mulleted Hill has been on tour in South Africa before – he was part of England’s trip there in 2018 but didn’t get capped. However, this time around is obviously very different.

jonny-hill Dan Sheridan / INPHO Hill at Lions training in South Africa. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“We’re in a strict bubble here,” says Hill. “It’s something we’re all used to from the Six Nations and autumn campaigns. It’s quite strict, social distancing, we travel to training on buses, but it’s nice to even drive around and see the scenery.

“You appreciate how different the world is because I’m a country boy from Shropshire surrounded by green fields and there’s not a blade of grass around here, it’s all burned off. It’s crazy and really, really different.”

One thing that will be familiar is the sheer might of South African forwards. While the Lions should be far too good for Saturday’s opposition – the United Rugby Championship-bound Lions – a brutal physical battle awaits in the Tests.

With that in mind, Hill hopes he and this weekend’s starting pack can set a tone for the tour ahead.

“They’re a very physical side and there’s no secret as to the way the South Africans play the game,” says Hill.

“I play alongside two, three, four South African-born lads at Chiefs and I know how they’re made up. We know what’s coming and there’s a lot of South African lads in the league, and you always have an awareness of them, definitely, physically.

“We’ve spoken about setting a marker at the set-piece as forwards. Wherever our mark is set, then we can build on it, build on it, build on it into the Test matches,

“It’s hugely important, they’re a side that has won huge games from their set-piece so that’s a thing in these games they’re going to target and we need to target as well.”


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