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FEATURE The renaissance man

The renaissance man
3 years ago

Nick Hill, a well-liked Shropshire livestock dealer, was used to travelling around the local area, rocking up at cattle markets, going about his business. He habitually worked long hours, so to take the strain off his wife Marie, he would take his two strapping sons, Josh and Jonny with him. Over the years, it was his younger son, Jonny, who kept growing, and growing. 

In those formative years, living in the countryside just outside Ludlow, if they weren’t huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, the Hill boys could be a handful, so the reasoned thinking was that by sticking with dad, it meant staying out of mischief. The truth, sadly, for Hill Snr, was that high-jinks were never far away.

Looking like an overgrown schoolboy on Zoom at the Lensbury – England’s base for the Six Nations – Jonny Hill recounts his less-than-angelic behaviour in what sounds, on the outside at least, like a bucolic childhood. 

“I spent a lot of my youth hanging around cattle markets. Invariably, we’d end up sniffing around the canteen. We used to get up to all sorts,” he says, with a glint in his eye. “One day we went off to Worcester market and dad didn’t have any cash on him so he said, ‘boys, put anything you eat on the tab’. He came back a few hours later and we’d eaten £75 worth of grub, which is quite impressive at a market eatery. He wasn’t best pleased.” 

With their father routinely packing up the 4×4 and heading off to work with the two young miscreants in tow, the boys entertained themselves. “Dad would have to focus on buying cattle, so we’d disappear and buy £50 worth of chickens and ducks. He’d have his head in his hands and say, ‘what are you guys doing?’, while we cackled away.”

Jonny Hill
Jonny Hill holds up a maul against Scotland last weekend (Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside via Getty Images)

Hill recalls these escapades with a naughty grin, and a softly-spoken Shropshire burr. Nowadays, it’s opposition rucks and mauls where he causes mayhem with his long levers spoiling ball at any opportunity. With an enormous wingspan that befits his rangy 6ft 7in frame, caterpillar rucks are required to stop him charging down nervous scrum-halves. As one of Exeter’s bovver boys-in-Chief, he is no shrinking violet.

One man who knows what he brings to his club and country is his forwards coach, Rob Hunter. The affable Geordie clearly has a lot of time for his young lock, though one aspect he’s unsure about his unique haircut.

“He’s had it short, then a mullet, and I’m not sure what the latest incarnation is called, but like a lot of the boys, he’s a fan of a horrendous lid,” he chuckles. “Seriously, Jonny is good company. Someone you can happily have a coffee with and find interesting conversation that has nothing to do with rugby. Like a lot of our guys, he’s very single-minded but there’s a playful side to him.”

Away from the dubious haircuts, Hunter says one of his best attributes is being comfortable in his own skin. “When he first started calling lineouts, he said, ‘you’re going to have to let me do it my way and trust that you’ll get the right result’. It was an important step to him taking responsibility on the field and that attitude has helped him become a European champion and England international.”

I can tell you he has no trouble at all with the physical side of things, so don’t be fooled by the lanky frame, floppy hair and easy smile. It shouldn’t mask a very competitive lad.

Rob Hunter, Exeter Chiefs forwards coach

Hill himself, laughs, when I recount the single-mindedness that struck Hunter. “I remember thinking it would be great string to add to the bow so I said, ‘look Rob, there’s two ways to skin a cat,’ and I reckon I wore him down in the end. Having Geoff Parling around early on helped and now Sam (Skinner) and I call it. He’s very well-spoken, from a private school background, so very different to me, but we work off each other well.”

As a callow youth, who spent time at Hartpury College alongside Ross Moriarty and Ellis Genge, before moving to Exeter Chiefs in 2015, Hill has taken time to grow into his body and has worked hard with the club’s S&C staff to adapt to professional rugby, as Hunter recalls. “We’ve had to work with him to become physically robust enough to play the way he wants to play. Jon is a guy who has skirted with some borderline clearouts and high-shots in his time. I can tell you he has no trouble with the physical side of things, so don’t be fooled by the lanky frame, floppy hair and easy smile. It shouldn’t mask a very competitive lad.”

Jonny Hill
Jonny Hill celebrates winning the Champions Cup against Racing 92 (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Hill, who describes himself as a keen-but-limited golfer and hacks around with the infinitely more gifted Joe Simmonds, Ollie Devoto and Stuart Townsend on his days off, is determined to be do things his own way and that is exemplified by his predisposition, pre-game, to remove himself from the changing room and sit in the stands to chill-out. 

As laid-back farmer’s son, Hill says he prefers to ‘keep it natural’ before a game. “I remember asking Owen Farrell about that preparation the first time I was in camp, and he’s the same as me, he doesn’t like forcing it. He’s winning his 90th cap today, so I took a lot of confidence from that seeing as what he’s achieved in the game.”

From club to country, there’s been no change. I just go flat and do whatever is asked of me. It’s a simple game for someone like me; set-piece, clear-out, ball-carrying and tackling.

The positive for Exeter and England fans is that Hill hasn’t been asked to perform an alien role for his country. Far from it, he is expected to replicate the form that has thrust him into the England reckoning, and despite a chastening result against Scotland, Hill’s 20 tackles topped any other England player. It was a performance that saw him keep his place for the Italy game with Courtney Lawes packing down at blindside. So does Eddie Jones ask anything different from him wearing the Red Rose, rather than a headdress?

“There’s been no change. I just go flat and do whatever is asked of me. It’s a simple game for someone in my position; set-piece, clear-out, ball-carrying and tackling,” wholly underplaying his lung-busting workrate and intellect required for calling the line.

Jonny Hill
Jonny Hill celebrates winning the Nations Cup with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill (Photo by Dan Mullan – via Getty Images)

As for where he can improve, Hunter says Hill would be the first to identify he is not the finished article. “Now he’s got to this level, it’s the little bits. His lineout defence has come on leaps and bounds, his tackle quality has improved so it’s about imposing his physical size and presence at scrum time, the lineout and around the park. I seriously don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet. He has room to grow.”

Hill played more football than rugby in his formative years before pitching up at Luctonians RFC as a teen. A supporter of Shrewsbury Town, he says he will watch any sport given the chance, ‘even darts and snooker’, if his girlfriend Sarah Llewelyn, the Welsh netball player gives him half-a-chance.

While Hill has come to the wider attention of the rugby public after a series of increasingly influential displays for the Chiefs in the last 12 months, his talent was recognised by England after he was called up for the 2018 tour of South Africa. It was a learning experience for a fresh-faced Hill, who remained an unused replacement on the three-Test tour. 

When you look at best teams in the world; the Springboks, the All Blacks, any team that’s won the European Cup, you look at the pack and you say, there’s your ball-player, there’s your ball-winner and there’s your ball-carrier and that’s Jon.

Rob Hunter

“Going on that tour I learnt a lot rugby-wise. Being around guys like Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw, I saw how they wanted to push to the next level all the time. I got to see how they went about their business on a Monday to Friday, not just on the Saturday. I left the tour a little disappointed, but I knew I wasn’t a million miles away.”

After making his full debut in the Nations Cup, Hill says Eddie Jones has described him as a guy who works ‘underneath the road’, doing the things people won’t necessarily see, defending, cleaning out, all the ‘front five sort of stuff’. 

Hunter says, in retrospect, Hill may not have been quite ready in 2018, when he went away with England. “He was probably a little bit callow, a bit young. He needed a bit of time to grow into his body. Now he puts himself about. When you look at best teams in the world, the Springboks, the All Blacks, any team that’s won the European Cup, you look at the pack and you say, there’s your ball-player, there’s your ball-winner and there’s your ball-carrier and that’s Jon. When England struggled against France in the Autumn, Jon came on and gave them a target to hit at lineout and maul.”

For so long, the England second-row options were settled with Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and George Kruis, but with the Saracen heading to Japan, Hill appears to be the next cab off the rank, however, Hunter believes it would only have been a matter of time before Hill’s emergence, irrespective of Kruis’ departure. “The biggest change to Jon came when we got locked down first time. When he came back, he looked like he was ready to play Test rugby. Once a player makes that decision there’s often no stopping them.”

Jonny Hill
Jonny Hill put some muscle on in the first lockdown (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Hill himself said as the country went into lockdown he just decided to knuckle down and spurred on by Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance, he got to work. “At the time, I just wanted to be the best player I could be. As the months went on I started really enjoying the progress I was making. When we resumed I was getting better and better, so it was just whether Eddie picked me or not.”

Jones, who is notorious for dropping players he doesn’t like the look of, seems to like the cut of Hill’s gib, which is good news for the Hill family. “The Six Nations was the only tournament we used to watch together when I was growing up. We didn’t have the money for Sky Sports to watch the Premiership and Europe, so it’s the one we all love and I’m privileged to be a part of it.”

After a false start in 2018, the learning curve will continue against the Azzurri. Hill finally looks set to go the distance.

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