EXCLUSIVE: An interview with Jamie Jones-Buchanan

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As he hobbled over to the table where Get ’em Onside was sitting, you could be forgiven for thinking Jamie Jones-Buchanan would be annoyed with his current set back. The Leeds Rhinos forward has had his right knee cleared out and he is sporting a strap around it while also having an ice pack of sorts to aid his recovery. Clearly uncomfortable, he fidgets with it throughout this interview. But, remarkably, despite being around two months from a return to playing, the 36 year old rugby league warrior is in high spirits.

“It’s alright, it’s on the mend,” Jones-Buchanan said about his current injury. “I think any problem in life is only a problem when you don’t know a solution. I’ve got it fixed, it’s starting to feel better already and the only enemy now is time.” A man who has been a member of the Leeds Rhinos family since he was a boy, his view on injuries has changed as he has grown into one of the elder statesman of the Headingley club. “Back in the day I used to feel guilty about not training and feeling like I’d get fat or lose muscle mass or strength but, because of the wisdom I’ve picked up over the last twenty years, I’m in a good place.” This particular issue first occurred earlier this season when the Rhinos beat St Helens at the Totally Wicked Stadium, the well-bearded forward revealed. “It’s a funny one. I hurt it back in March and one of their lads came steaming in and crushed my knee and it was a bit of a problem. But, because of the injuries I’ve had before, it wasn’t that bad – as a rugby player, we’re always playing with knocks of some degree.” A testament to his warrior-like attitude to play on the field, ‘Jonesy’ played through that pain. “It just kept getting worse to the point that, in the last couple of games, I was really struggling to run and do my job properly.”

As an older player, his surgeon explained that a fair bit would need doing in his knee but the player himself admitted to not wanting anything too extensive done. “I want to get back on the field as quick as I can,” Jones-Buchanan shared. Perhaps one reason for wanting to return to playing very soon – other than his sheer love of rugby league and competition – is the Rhinos thus-far inconsistent season. The 36 year old, however, didn’t feel that the season was going as badly as some quarters of the media have been making out. “It’s been an interesting one, really frustrating because we’ve lost a lot of games by a point and that draw against Huddersfield,” he explained, continuing that “if you flip them around, give us two points for them and we’re not too bad. On the back of that, what’s even worse is that – if we won those games – the confidence is different, the form is different and the perception is different.” Currently blighted by injuries, especially in the pack, it was unsurprisingly mentioned by the Leeds stalwart. He was, however, at pains to not use it as an excuse. “The last few weeks we’ve been down a lot on numbers and obviously it’s very hard to get your head round another loss but what we have done in all the games is we have shown a lot of tenacity, fight and perseverance.” Answering the question about whether injuries and loss of personnel are having a serious impact on the team currently, Jones-Buchanan suggested that isn’t the sole problem with it. “We have had people like Richie Myler come in this year in a pivotal position and he’s a great example of somebody who is a key player who is having to find his feet at the club but is having to do that with different players around him each week. But every team goes through it – Huddersfield have been through it, Hull FC are going through it now and that’s professional sport – it happens,” he explained.

As a result of having an injury hit squad, the Rhinos have introduced a clutch of young prospects into the first team fold. “Mikolaj [Oledski] and Cameron Smith have come in, Jack Walker is still a baby in the context of things and they are learning how to change games like that – in three, four years time they will be masters at it,” he added and something that comes across clearly from sharing some time talking rugby with Jones-Buchanan is his pride at not only having come through the youth system himself but now also seeing a new generation come through. “Any gap that is currently in their game can only be filled with game time and experience. We’re not in a bad place at all [as a team], we’re in a Challenge Cup quarter final this week and we are still in and around the top four – although we need to start winning games soon.”

As a man who has followed the Rhinos throughout his entire life, Jones-Buchanan was once a regular on the hallowed South Stand terrace before playing in front of those adoring fans. Now, Headingley Stadium is in the midst of the biggest redevelopment it has ever seen with both the South and North stands being totally rebuilt. It would be understandable then if ‘JJB’ was feeling a bit sad about seeing the place where he used to watch the team – and the stand which roared the Rhinos on to many-a-success – turned into rubble with a huge, modern stand taking its’ place. That, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. “I think it’s wonderful,” he explained. “I’ve played at Central Park, at The Boulevard, Knowsley Road and Wilderspool and all of those grounds have gone. Unfortunately, those teams have had to go on new sites with new stadiums which is fantastic – the sport needs to move on and to facilitate growth.” However, the fact that Leeds are able to redevelop rather than rehome is something Jones-Buchanan is chuffed about, saying “we’re fortunate enough to still be here at Headingley. While it’s a new stand, it’s a new era at the same venue. The prestige and history will always be there. Headingley has always been a hub for people within the city to come and fulfil their potential and the redevelopment of both stands will allow that to continue.”

He has been involved with Leeds since he was fifteen years old and it is a former team mate who joined at the same time who has had the biggest impact on his playing career. “The number one who comes to mind is Kevin Sinfield. Kev and I knew each other from when we were about twelve years old and he was such a master, even at that age,” Jones-Buchanan explained. “He was head and shoulders above everybody and he was more of a professional in his teens than most people are now. He was a great leader, is a great friend and somebody I love to bits.” The partnership between the two was demonstrated at it’s finest when, after injury ruled him out of the 2015 Challenge Cup final, captain Sinfield invited his friend to lift the trophy with him after Leeds had won the competition for the first time in sixteen years. “That just symbolised in a moment what Kevin is all about.”

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Now, as opposed to being the young gun starting out as he did in the late nineties – making his debut in 1999 against Wakefield – Jones-Buchanan is the last of the old guard, a man who has experienced, seen and won everything rugby league has to offer. But what is clear is that he still feels enthused and driven, something he attributes to some of the next generation coming through. “I’ve probably played through three generations – Keith Senior and Barrie McDermott’s, my generation and now you’ve got people like Jack Walker – he wasn’t born when I made my debut!” he laughed. “That’s quite special for me,” the veteran of over four hundred appearances expressed. “Just because Jack is a lot younger than me doesn’t mean that I can’t be inspired by him,” before adding that the enthustiasm of the likes of Walker, Ashton Golding and Oledski – someone JJB believes can go a very long way in the game – still drive him on now. “Ashton reminds me of myself at his age – he will do anything and everything that he needs to do to get to where he needs to be,” he continued. Stevie Ward is another player who Jones-Buchanan commented on: “I coached Stevie when he first came to Leeds with the under-16s – I was his first coach. Seeing him come through and now playing with him… he’s an international who has some truly world class moments and sometimes I just think ‘WOW!’, what a player he is.”

Something that clearly comes across from speaking to the former England and Great Britain international – and it is something that may not be apparent to those who haven’t heard him speak before – is that he is a deep thinker, a man who is well-read, deeply faithful and a remarkable story teller. In that manner, he probably isn’t your average rugby league player. In the shape of his current head coach Brian McDermott, Jones-Buchanan feels his is under the stewardship of a similarly minded character. “He is of the understanding that life is about suffering and going through the hard parts,” he explained. “We always sit down on a regular basis actually and laugh at each other, saying ‘we’re here, we’re going through it again, we’re in a dark hole’ and we did that quite recently.” He admitted to struggling a bit himself but acknowledged the mutual understanding the pair share – something which is clearly very valuable to the second rower. “For those reasons, I’d have to say I’ve enjoyed my time hugely under Brian Mac because he’s got a similar understanding to life and the world as I have.”

That interaction with his head coach is something which demonstrates something further about Jones-Buchanan – his sheer love of people. “It is not good for a man to be alone,” he said, quoting the Bible. “Over the last year I’ve spent a lot of time with people in social isolation with the Poverty Truth Commission,” one of many off field endeavours the Rugby AM presenter has – or is still – involved in. “Social isolation was an absolute killer. People who had been well valued and competent had gone through something which left them on their own or not wanting to be with other people. Being isolated is terrible – human beings need that social interaction and one of the most gratifying parts of my job, whether it’s with this new generation or the past, is the social interaction; sharing ideas, sharing stories. I keep saying that human beings are the only species on the planet that share stories so whether that be telling Mikolaj and the young boys about what I’ve done or listening to people who played in the Watersplash final… I absolutely love it.” Such is the passion for people the man has, he is clearly buzzing as he talks about this side of his life. “Part of my role in the squad now is to pass stuff on to those boys, to share and mentor them and they repay me with their enthusiasm that is needed to get an old guy with plenty of wear and tear through games!”

That love of story telling is something which certainly rings true in his off field life. Rugby AM is now arguably the premier rugby league television program – something which only started in co-presenter and founder Alex Simmonds’ garage – and is a vehicle by which Jones-Buchanan is able to share rugby league stories on a weekly basis, as well as building the profile of the sport. “One of my biggest bug bears with rugby league at the moment is that it is covered by gambling and booze which isn’t aspirational at all and, while the sport needs money, we will never be the sport we want to be whilst we are embroiled in gambling and booze.” Another time through our interview where he mentioned that word ‘aspirational’ was speaking about third tier York City Knights, a team ‘Jonesy’ commentated on for the BBC earlier this season when they faced Catalans Dragons in the Challenge Cup. “The lower leagues have been great this year. I’m a big fan of York and a big reason why is because of the city itself,” he explained. “When I see the historic town, I’m inspired – I’m a medieval romanticist – and I would love York to be a Super League team and a well represented place in rugby league because it’s a great city.” A big fan of the North Yorkshire culture, he explained his opinion that places in the area are aspirational places, listing Wetherby and Harrogate alongside the Minster city. “York is a city full of people who could bring a different perspective to the game, that aspiration,” he explained, also highlighting the current upward trajectory of the club and their highly rated coach James Ford.

In the mix of his off field activities is, now, acting and Jones-Buchanan has recently been elected to the board of Red Ladder, a Leeds based theatre company. Furthermore, he has been playing a starring role in Playing the Joker, a play which has been touring the area in recent months. A very different off field venture than your stereotypical rugby league man, he revealed that Gary Hetherington is to thank for getting him involved. “He’s stretched me out of my comfort zone beyond belief,” he expressed, continuing that “he’s always known I’ve been able to tell a story and to entertain. He’s a man who always tries to get the best out of each person and he has given me a lot of opportunities.” 

It would be remiss of me as a writer and rugby league fan to not talk about As Good As It Gets, the recently released documentary showcasing the Rhinos’ golden generation, their treble-winning 2015 campaign and the adversity and off-field strife that went alongside it. It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that, with his love and ability to tell a story, Jones-Buchanan was heavily involved in the planning of the film and that it has been hugely well received thus far. He has made no bones about hoping that the film, now available on DVD and to watch on Amazon Prime, proves to be a catalyst for the telling of more rugby league stories. “It was so emotional to make it. After the premiere week – I’d watched the film four times in that first week – my body just came down from being so high,” he admitted. “Rugby league doesn’t tell enough stories – that was part of the reason for getting behind Simmo [Alex Simmonds] when Rugby AM was just in his garage. Right now, the sport is still working class wrapped – if we are to be an aspirational sport, we have to start selling and producing some quality, cinematic productions.” There was one clear negative for Jones-Buchanan but, instead of putting a dampener on As Good As It Gets, it has perhaps opened another door. “The only negative side effect was realising how many stories we hadn’t told – it was a travesty,” he professed. “One example: Tom Briscoe scored five tries at Wembley – we could do a forty minute documentary just on this lad from Featherstone. He’s massively underrepresented in the film but, to stick with that thread from 1996 to 2015 with these protagonist Leeds boys… there was only so much we could get in!” Admitting that he wanted to talk more about the likes of Zak Hardaker – Man of Steel winner that year – the Leeds Rhinos Foundation – “2015 was their ten year anniversary” – BBC Sports Personality of the year and Kallum Watkins – “he’s our current captain and he wasn’t even in it! Perhaps half joking, he suggested that last year’s Grand Final success and the preceding campaign of disappointment in 2016 could be a sequel.

Approaching the end of his career now, as the interview drew towards a close we spoke about what life after playing might entail for the living Leeds legend. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t just one venture that came up! “I’ve done coaching since I was sixteen and I love it. I’d like to think I could work in youth development but I’d love to work with the foundation,” he expressed. “I’d love to be someone who is influential in this city. I spent a day with Tom Riordan, the CEO of Leeds City Council, and he gave me a great insight into what goes on and how in this city.” During his various endeavours within his community with a vast range of people and organisations, Jones-Buchanan outlined some of the good work he has seen done. “I’d love to bring some of these good people together and the city would grow exponentially. When I finish playing, possibly on the vehicle of the Foundation, I’d look at doing a bit of that – and to keep the platform to tell a story through Rugby AM or some media work!” 

During the time spent talking with Jamie Jones-Buchanan, what comes across is his love for people. Enthusiastic throughout, he offered an insight into so many different aspects of both rugby league and his life off the pitch. Open about his rugby ability, he professed that “I’ve never really excelled at anything other than perseverance and persistence, a desire to keep grafting, and that’s probably why I’m the last one standing.” Still keen to play on beyond the end of 2018 – or, if he isn’t he certainly didn’t let on – he admitted that he still loves the game. “Being a Leeds boy, sometimes I have to pinch myself – it’s been an amazing journey,” he shared, continuing that “I still get that thrill.” Such is his competitive nature that, even when fidgeting with his knee strapping and ice, he refers to the fact that Jamie Peacock’s image outside the changing rooms at the training ground and the fact he has nine Super League winners’ rings leaves Jones-Buchanan wanting one more to add to his already-impressive eight – this man isn’t done yet.

A quote that the rugby league icon mentioned more than once was from American educator Stephen Covey: “to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.” What is clear from speaking to the man known as ‘Jonesy’ is that the first three have been ticked off and, while you never stop doing them, his work now is in the hope of leaving a legacy, both professionally and personally. This is a man who wants the best for those around him and who wants to benefit society in any way he can. It’s fair to say Jamie Jones-Buchanan is a remarkable and inspirational individual.

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