The last time that Jonny Hill played with Maro Itoje was in the England Under-20 team who defeated Italy in Calvisano during the 2014 Six Nations Championship.
Later that summer, Itoje starred in England’s Junior World Championship triumph, which announced his burgeoning potential to the world. Great things were also expected of Hill, before he suffered a gruesome talar dome ankle fracture while still in the Gloucester academy. So, while Itoje was cashing in his one-way ticket to superstardom, Hill spent years battling to save a career that was nearly ruined before it even started. At 26, Hill is now making good on his initial rich promise as he prepares to make his England debut alongside Itoje at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
It is Hill that calls the line-out for the most dominant maul in English club rugby but, far from being just a jumper, he tackles and carries with real ferocity. He was at the heart of the late goalline stand against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup with one expert tackle on Finn Russell sucking the air out of both the Scottish playmaker and the Parisians’ challenge.
Hill’s elevation is particularly impressive given that he has just had one full training week after the Gallagher Premiership final and that Jones had ready-made partners for Itoje in Charlie Ewels and Joe Launchbury to fill the void left by the departed George Kruis. That mantle is now Hill’s to fill according to Jones.
“With George going we needed a centre-of-the-line-out jumper, so we have been looking with great diligence for that centre-of-the-line-out jumper, a big guy that can win you ball in the middle of the line-out and also be very good at setting up mauls and disrupting mauls. He has had a great run for Exeter. We brought him into the England team for the 2018 SA tour,” Jones said. “He was a little bit off the mark there, but he has continued to develop and in just a couple of days training he has shown he has learnt a lot over the past 12 months.”
At Exeter, Hill often prepares for games by either sitting in the stands, practising visualisation, or walking around the pitch with his earphones on. His quiet demeanour masks a wicked sense of humour according to team-mate Henry Slade.
“Jonny is a top lad,” Slade said. “When you first meet him he is pretty reserved but, as you get to know him more and more he comes out of his shell and is a massive part of our squad at Exeter. He is a bit of a joker. An all-round good guy.”
His debut also means that his partner, Sarah Llewelyn a former Wales netball player may not have bragging rights in the relationship for much longer. “She enjoys telling me that she has more international caps than I do,” Hill told The Daily Telegraph last week.