Jonny Hill’s first hole in one on the golf course launched a rollercoaster year that has produced another dramatic swing with his inclusion in the British and Irish Lions team to face Sigma Lions on Saturday.
Hill credits the moment of fortune at Exeter Golf and Country Club 12 months ago for igniting a eventful phase of his life that has produced his England debut and domestic, European and international titles, but also moments of disappointment.
Losing to Harlequins in Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership final was another twist to the story, but 24 hours later he was flying to Johannesburg with the Lions and at Emirates Airline Park the Chiefs second row has a chance to write a new chapter.
“This time last year – tomorrow (Friday) actually – I got a hole in one in golf. My first ever one,” Hill said.
“It was par five, 600 yards! No, it was a par three, 120 yards with a pitching wedge. I didn’t thin it either, a nice bit of a fade on it and it rolled in. That was a good achievement and that’s where it all started really.
“We all trained like madmen in lockdown, the Exeter lads. There was nothing to do, so we just trained in our own homes.
“We got loads of gear sent to us and we came back to playing in the Premiership in August. I remember (Exeter director of rugby) 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. Four weeks later we won the Autumn Nations Cup. We did it the hard way, but it was another win.
“We came back and then battled away in the club season, which was up and down. It was not all plain sailing. We lost a couple of important games over Christmas.
“And then we went into the Six Nations and that definitely wasn’t plain sailing. I went in there with big plans and I remember driving home from that and I was disappointed about how it had gone for me.
“So it was kind of about me coming back to my club and going back to my basics and playing the way I want to play. It was important for me to do that.
“It felt like we had some good momentum coming into the Premiership final but we came up short.
“After the match it was really, really strange mentally because I had the Lions to look forward to, so I had to shake myself down that evening, wake up on Sunday morning and forget about it.
“Then we flew out, landed here and I was told I was starting in the first game against the Lions, so I was back on top of the world again.”
Many of the ups and downs have been shared by Hill’s Exeter team-mate Stuart Hogg, the Scotland full-back who was dropped at a critical phase of the Chiefs’ season but who now captains the Lions in their opening fixture on South African soil.
“Stuart was absolutely gutted not to be involved in the final. He’s not the sort of guy who would keep his powder dry for a Lions tour,” Hill said.
“He’s one of the most professional players I’ve come across and him being selected as captain this weekend is a reflection of that.
“I know that it means a lot to him. He’s a guy who has been on two previous tours and he unfortunately hasn’t got a Test cap yet.”