Leeds Rhinos’ Jamie Jones-Buchanan tells Andrew Stone how he is looking forward to tackling the new rugby league season
JUST two months after England narrowly lost 6-0 to hosts Australia in what was described as the best Rugby League World Cup final,
the new Super League season has kicked off this week.
Fans will be looking forward to the excitement of tries, scrums and penalty kicks. So will the players – particularly Jamie Jones-Buchanan of reigning Super League champions Leeds Rhinos, who is now in his 20th league season.
‘There’s only one player who has done 20 years,’ he tells me. ‘So, God willing, if I play through this year there’s the potential to join a company of one.’
Jamie, known in the game as JJB, has enjoyed great success at Leeds, winning 16 domestic competitions while also representing his country at the highest level.
‘I feel privileged and honoured to have achieved what I have,’ he says. ‘We had a core of players at the club who were called the “golden generation”. The 2015 season was the club’s most successful ever as we won three trophies. But it was also the most adverse for me, as I injured my knee and missed out on all three finals.’
JJB still lifted the Challenge Cup at Wembley, albeit dressed in a suit alongside the club captain Kevin Sinfield.
‘It was a defining moment,’ he recalls. ‘It showed the altruistic nature of the group. I think the team won trophies not because it necessarily had the best players, but because it was a group made up of sacrificial men who looked after each other.
‘Being the last man standing in that group and the oldest player, it’s my responsibility to pass that message on to the next generation of players who are coming through.’
Even though the golden generation is not at the Rhinos any more, the 36-year-old knows that the supporters will be hoping for similar success with the current squad.
‘The fans have big expectations,’ he says. ‘And the players want to go on and win more trophies.’
JJB’s competitive nature was evident early on in life. He was four years old when he started taking part in sport and discovered the thrill of winning.
‘Unfortunately, winning became my identity. It was the centre of who I was. It didn’t matter if I was playing rugby or a game of Monopoly, I had to be first. The importance isn’t there as much now, but I still enjoy winning and competing, and I’m excited by the new season.’
Over the years, Jamie has seen many changes in the game as more concern is now being given to player welfare. He explains that some actions that would have been celebrated earlier in his career are not part of the game any more.
‘When I played in the World Club Challenge in 2008 I flew down the field and tackled this guy with a bit of a shoulder charge. I rattled him and he stayed down, but it was like scoring a goal in soccer, the crowd erupted. Back then that was a fair way of tackling and was par for the course.
‘But if you did that today, you’d probably get a two-match suspension. I am an old dog who needs to get rid of some bad habits.’
Losing those old habits is not always easy, as JJB has learnt to his cost. In his entire career he has been suspended only four times, but three of those bans have been in the past 18 months.
It is a concern for the player who became a Christian in 2006.
‘A lot of the world thinks that once you become a Christian you become perfect, and that certainly isn’t the case,’ he reflects. ‘But I do feel a pressure to behave a certain way out on the pitch because of my faith.’
Jamie’s journey to faith started when Leeds Rhinos signed New Zealander Ali Lauitiiti, who was a practising Christian.
‘I was a cantankerous rugby league player who wanted to win everything,’ he recalls. ‘But it was quickly evident that there was something different about Ali. He made no secret of the fact that he was a Christian and it was the first time I had a team-mate and a friend who I had the opportunity to speak to about faith.’
While he was growing up, JJB’s family attended church only for weddings and christenings, although he had received a Gideon’s Bible as a child. His new teammate allowed him to see what it meant to be a Christian.
‘Ali was a shining light,’ he explains. ‘It was as much his actions as his words that made him stand out. He would train really hard and be part of the group, but once the players went off drinking, or with women, he separated himself.
‘He invited me to the church I still go to today. The pastor at the time took me under his wing, and we went through a course called Christianity Explored.
‘I had always believed in this higher power and that there was a God, and my own inner searching got married up to the theology of the Bible. I started to learn who the person of Jesus Christ was. I never looked back.
‘My Christian experience was a gradual thing. There was never one day when I went into church and came out completely different. I was always looking for the truth and where that fitted into my life, and the more I understood about Christianity, the more I realised how true it was.’
JJB’s team-mates began to see a change in him, as he no longer did some of the things they did. But that didn’t cause them to resent his faith, and they have been happy to talk with him about it.
‘I speak to my team-mates about faith all the time,’ he says. ‘In 2014 we celebrated the club’s 150th anniversary at Leeds Minster. I was invited to give my testimony in front of fans and players and explain why I am a Christian.’
That is not the only time Jamie has spoken to his team-mates en masse about matters of faith. In 2015 the side was going through a tough time and for a while there was a risk of relegation. As one of the senior players, JJB was asked by the coach to talk to his teammates during a training session.
‘I walked over to the group with my Bible, and I sat them down and read the first two chapters of the Book of Job,’ he remembers.
The biblical story about a man named Job describes how, in the course of just one day, he suffers the catastrophes of his livestock, servants and ten children all dying because of attacks and natural disasters.
‘I said that if they thought we were suffering, think about this guy who persevered!’
Jamie laughs as he recounts the occasion.
‘As soon as I whipped the Bible out, I could see the coach worrying about where my talk was going. But the point I was trying to get across was to keep our eyes on what is good and to keep on persevering.’
As JJB is obviously comfortable with practising his faith on the training ground, I wonder if he is just as happy taking it onto the match-day pitch. Does he pray during games?
‘I certainly don’t pray for a win, but I do pray for God’s will to be done,’ he replies. ‘Whatever manifests itself on the pitch, I pray that it is God’s will and that I will react in the right way. When I’m under pressure, particularly with the crowd’s expectations, I just hope and pray that the right things come out of me and that I react in a Christlike way.’
And the veteran player is still experiencing new ways of demonstrating his faith when on the pitch.
‘My identity was always in winning,’ he says. ‘But last year we played Castleford six times and thankfully we beat them in the final. But in all the games before that, we got absolutely hammered by them. One game they beat us 62-10.
‘There are quite a few Christians in that Castleford team and the last time we played them before the final we got beaten quite heavily again, but afterwards, the Castleford players and I all knelt down on the pitch and prayed, giving thanks for the opportunity to play.
‘I felt that it was an opportunity for a witness that our faith is at the forefront of our lives and the most important thing.’
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