It’s no secret that Lomax’s sporting career has been a turbulent one – from the soaring success of signing for a major Super League club straight out of high school to the crushing low of his ligament injuries back in 2014 and 2015. But the Saints star, who competed in 189 games for the club before being awarded his testimonial for the 2019 season, could have ended up playing for Wigan Warriors.
‘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 – who’s originally from Standish – and I both live in Chapel End again,’ Lomax explains. ‘It’s its own place – whenever anyone asks me where I’m from, I make sure I say Billinge. I love living there – everyone’s known me from when I was young, walking around with a rugby ball, but I usually keep my head down when I go to spend time with family and friends, and since I wear a headguard on the pitch I don’t tend to get recognised too much.’
‘Back then the trials you went to depended on service area, so as a Billinge lad I was actually invited to try out for Saints and Wigan,’ he adds.
Lomax began his early rugby career at Orrell St. James RLFC, following generations of his family before him. ‘I actually used to play football, like most kids who played out in the street, until I was 11 or 12, but my dad did rugby league at Orrell when he was younger. His dad – my grandad – used to coach there, so it was really a generational thing, and my dad suggested I go down and give it a go,’ Jonny says. ‘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 sometimes miss it,’ he admits. ‘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,’ Lomax 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 true calling, and Lomax continued to play Orrell St. James from being just five years old, right up to under-16s when he was scouted for professional rugby. It’s clear to see 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 in those days. You usually saw lads moving on to more “fashionable” clubs, but we pretty much stayed together at Orrell. I still go and do training sessions with the kids there – they have a great set-up now in Bankes Avenue, and they’re pretty spoilt in my opinion!’
Playing rugby league at Orrell was also how Lomax picked up his first injury. During secondary school, he suffered from an extradural haemorrhage when parts of his skull pierced an artery and left him bleeding for five days. He now wears the logo of Tru Rehab – a brain injury rehabilitation facility – on his signature headguard to raise awareness of the cause and remind himself how lucky he was to recover and go on to play professionally.
His injury meant Lomax missed out on a lot of school, and was warned he’d potentially have to resit years of studying. ‘Thankfully I didn’t have to, and I got my GCSEs at my mum’s insistence. Like most lads, I enjoyed missing lessons for rugby, but mum made sure I even got my A-levels with 30% attendance.’
‘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, even if I did get a bit of stick from my teammates.’
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.’
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. ‘I’m planning to go back to Orrell St. James and do a bit of an open day with the kids there.’
If you want to get involved with Jonny’s testimonial, email email@example.com, and you can get updates on Facebook or jonny_lomax_testimonial on Instagram.