Of all the things Jamie Jones-Buchanan said last week – and there was plenty to go at – during an intriguing tell-all with the media discussing his 20 years as a Leeds Rhinos player, it was arguably one of the final sentences to leave his mouth which struck the strongest chord.
“I just love the club and I hope everybody remembers me as somebody who just wanted to serve Leeds Rhinos,” was Jones-Buchanan’s closing words when he was asked how he would like to be regarded when the time – and it is on the horizon – to call it a day finally arrives.
But on the 20th anniversary of his debut for the club with whom he has given everything and, in return, won everything there is to win as a player, Jones-Buchanan surely believes he will be regarded in a much, much stronger light than he believes – no matter how humble he is being.
The significance of the milestone Jones-Buchanan celebrates on Tuesday cannot be underestimated. On May 7th, 1999, a young teenage forward – sometimes named Jones, sometimes named Buchanan if you believe what was on the back of his shirts during his early years – was thrown into the professional game by Graham Murray for his debut against Wakefield Trinity, just days after the Rhinos had won the Challenge Cup final against London Broncos.
Two decades on, and over 400 appearances later, Jones-Buchanan, now at the age of 37, is still doing what he loves more than almost anything else: representing his hometown club. “As a youngster, I’d never have thought it was technically possible to play this long,” he recalls. “In fact, I remember thinking in my early twenties that I’d probably be retired by the time we had the Olympics in 2012.. and I was wondering what event I could do!”
While other members of the club’s golden generation will be remembered arguably more fondly for their contributions to the unparalleled success the Rhinos have experienced throughout his career, few – if any – men have worn the Leeds shirt with more pride than he has over the last 20 years.
It is a journey that has taken the Bramley native all the way to top: albeit with an unconventional start. Gary Hetherington said he wanted us to go out and get jobs and experience the real world while playing for Leeds – how mad is that!” he laughs. “I went to a Next warehouse and I remember telling some of the guys there that I played for Leeds. They said: ‘If you play for Leeds, what are you working here for?!’
“But then I played a game and I was on the back page of the Evening Post. I remember the guys seeing it and thinking ‘Yes! I told you I played for Leeds!’ I was so happy. I’ve actually seen some of those guys knocking about since and we always have a laugh about it.”
But as buoyant as Jones-Buchanan is about both the coming months and the enormity of his 20-year anniversary at the top, the signs are there that he knows the end is nigh. “That’s symbolic of what all my joints feel like,” he says as he points to a misshapen finger that is just one of several war wounds he carries from so many years of putting his body on the line.
“The thing that has killed me over the last 18 months is training early in the weeks,” he revealed. “There’s a lot of teenagers desperate to get in the team, and they come in and train no holds barred. It’s just difficult, and you probably don’t need to do it at a certain stage so long as you can play at the weekend, but we’ve a new culture here and everyone has to be treated the same way. But I’m still buzzing as much as I was at 15.. the novelty has never worn off.
“I had a good chat with Danny McGuire recently and I think he’s ready now, as we all are. So much has changed now; I’m sat here looking at how different Headingley is; it’s all that brand new that it’s a bit alien to me.. it’s like playing away. We’re all ready to move on and let the next generation take it forward.”
Could he have finished last season? “I had a knee problem last year and it was a lot worse than I first thought,” he admits. “But I didn’t start thinking it would be my last year, and when we were in the Qualifiers I knew I didn’t want to finish like this. I believed I had one more in me. But I know it’s definitely time for me to knock it on the head for a multitude of reasons.”
But there is still history to be made. Last Friday, Jones-Buchanan made his 419th appearance for Leeds and if all goes to plan, he could finish ahead of greats like Les Dyl and Ray Batten on the club’s all-time list. It would move him into the top ten – and as well as that, Jones-Buchanan has typically lofty ambitions for what is almost certainly the final few months of an illustrious career.
“I imagine us doing the double,” he says without even a moment to pause after being asked about how he envisages retiring. I believe, as the season goes on and if we keep focused in the right way, there’s no reason why we can’t finish fifth. We’ve won the Grand Final from fifth before.
“We’re still in the Challenge Cup; we can win the Challenge Cup. We’re only two games from a semi-final, and there’s no reason why we can’t beat anybody on our day – and that far down the line we’ll be a better side. So realistically, in my mind, I think we can finish with a double this year.”
It’s certainly an outside bet – but if Leeds show even a fraction of the effort and attitude Jones-Buchanan has throughout his incredible career, it may not be all that impossible.