Jess Phillips sits down with Saints legend Jonny Lomax ahead of his upcoming testimonial year to talk rugby, injuries and what the future holds.
To be awarded a testimonial year is a rare honour, awarded to the likes of James Roby and Sean Long. Testimonials reward players for their service to the club with a friendly match and a year-long calendar of events in the local community. After competing in 189 games for the club, scoring a total of 88 tries and 103 goals across his Saints career, Jonny Lomax is looking forward to a more relaxed 2019 for his – in between studying for his physiotherapy degree, that is.
‘It’s been crazy. I’m on placement at the moment and I’ve actually seen live surgeries being performed – it’s definitely been interesting,’ Lomax tells me. ‘Usually I’m training most days and going to university on Mondays and Thursdays, so I tend to spend my days off and evenings with my family.’
Family has indeed always been an integral part of Jonny’s life. ‘They’re actually how I got into playing rugby. I always played football when I was younger because that was what everybody played on the streets, but my dad did rugby league at Orrell St. James when he was younger. His dad – my grandad – used to coach there, so it was really a generational thing.
‘Being a shy kid, I was a bit nervous but I was always pretty quick on the playground so I ended up being quite good at rugby too.’
I ask Jonny, who has been cheerfully telling me about various dislocations of fingers and shoulders from rugby injuries, whether he ever wishes he’d stuck at soccer.
‘I did still play football at the beginning of high school, but then rugby took priority. I did sometimes miss it, especially when I think quite a few of my injuries probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d carried on with it, but it definitely wouldn’t have been the journey it has.’
‘We did do a charity football match with a few ex-professionals, and I like to think I’ve still got it,’ he continues. ‘Ex-United player Denis Irwin crossed it in and I managed to jump and volley it into the top corner and scored! That skill might’ve diminished a bit now though.’
There’s no doubt rugby was his calling, and Lomax continued to play at Orrell St. James Rugby Club from being just five years old, right up to under-16s when he was scouted for Saints. It’s clear to see that the club is still dear to his heart. ‘We were always scrambling around for a pitch but we all stuck together, which was quite rare,’ he tells me. His young rugby career at the club is also the reason for his signature headgear.
During secondary school, Lomax suffered from an extradural haemorrhage when parts of his skull pierced an artery and left him bleeding for five days. He now wears Tru Rehab’s logo on his headguard to raise awareness of brain injury and to remind himself how lucky he was to recover and go on to play professionally – and discusses that when he visits the kids at Orrell.
‘They have a great set-up in Bankes Avenue now, and I still go and do training sessions with them there.’
I have to wonder – did his affinity for Orrell ever tempt Lomax towards Wigan Warriors?
‘Growing up in Chapel End in Billinge, I was always a St. Helens lad. I’ve lived in Billinge all my life – we moved from Brown Heath Avenue in Chapel End to Beacon Road in Higher End, and now my wife and I both live in Chapel End again,’ he explains. ‘And it was mostly dependent on service area. There was a bit of confusion because I played for Orrell St. James, so I was actually invited to try out for Saints and Wigan, but it was always my dream to play for Saints. As soon as they made me an offer I snapped it up.’
Laughing, he adds, ‘Paul Wellens always says I’m fighting the battle from the front lines.’
Lomax signed for Saints when he was just sixteen, and had just finished secondary school at Rainford High. ‘Even after that, when I made my debut aged eighteen, I still saw the other players as men and myself as a boy. You’re kind of in awe of everything, running with players like Sean Long and Keiron Cunningham – just walking into the changing room with your bag on your back, it was crazy looking around and nodding at everyone.
‘I was a bit worried about bossing people around, which my position demanded, but eventually I realised that this was my chance, and I had to take it. My dad always reminded me that I wasn’t chosen for Saints because I was a nice lad – it was completely on merit, and I had to show my potential if I was going to get anywhere.’
Now Lomax takes his experiences as a younger player and uses it to inspire the rookies. ‘I do try and help them along – sometimes it’s best to put an arm around their shoulders, sometimes they need a telling off. But I think about when I was in their shoes and try to pass that on to the younger lads.’
And despite his sporting successes from such a young age, his mum ensured he completed his GCSEs. ‘She always drilled it into me that because I was on scholarship, you never know when it’ll end or what’ll happen. I did my GCSEs even though I didn’t really want to – like most lads, I always enjoyed missing lessons for rugby, and the summer holidays before I started college I trained with the first team, which was incredible. But mum did make sure I got my A-levels, which I managed even with 30% attendance,’ he admits with a chuckle.
‘I’m glad I kept at it in the end, because it’s allowed me to do my physiotherapy degree in my off-season. A lot of people who play sports professionally end up in their mid-30s only knowing one way of life, which is quite scary. I wanted to do something a bit different.’
After a gruelling series of injuries which left him fearing for his Super League future, Lomax is understandably grateful to have a back-up plan in place. ‘I don’t think anyone realises what it was truly like’, Lomax says. There’s certainly a shift in the air when he casts his mind back to that period. ‘I did one ACL’ – that’s an injury of the anterior cruciate ligament – ‘and went through physiotherapy and my leg was still giving way when I was walking round, so I had to undergo an operation to get it reconstructed.’
Doctors warned Lomax that if the gap was too wide where the new ligament was placed, they could end up taking bone from his hip and revisiting the surgery in another three months.
‘They managed it, though. I was ill for fourteen days after it, and when they took the staples out they told me it was infected, so I was in hospital for another four weeks on a PICC line. It was a really, really difficult time, and that doesn’t always get disclosed.’
Despite it all, Lomax’s lowest period culminated in one of his highest. ‘I think the highlight of my entire career – even better than playing for England – was scoring on my return after almost two years out. I scored as soon as I touched the ball essentially, which was a bit of a fairy-tale! All of my family were there, everyone who supported me through that difficult time, and I went to see my sister afterwards and just burst out crying.’
‘There were times I just wanted to quit. I told my parents I never wanted to play rugby again, but I felt good before the game and knew I had to do it,’ Lomax admits. ‘The physiotherapy came out of that fear that I’d never play again. Some of the lads have taken up trades like plumbing or engineering, but physiotherapy has a special place in my heart and I’m really enjoying doing it – even if I did get a bit of stick from teammates at first.’
But Lomax’s rugby career is still at the forefront of his mind for now, and with his testimonial year ahead, the future looks bright once again. ‘I want the whole thing to be very family-orientated, because that’s who I am,’ Jonny says. ‘The main reason people come to see our games is because their kids love it, so I’m hoping to do plenty of open days and family-friendly events along with fan forums.’
At the moment everyone is gearing towards Lomax’s testimonial match, which takes place at the Totally Wicked Stadium on Saturday, January 19 against Hull F.C. with a 2pm kick-off. It certainly feels like a well-deserved high in Jonny’s turbulent career.
Keep up to date with his testimonial at Jonny Lomax – 2019 Testimonial on Facebook or jonny_lomax_testimonial on Instagram for further updates and a calendar of events.