THE MOST successful era in Leeds Rhinos’ history will finally come to an end tomorrow.
Rhinos’ two longest-serving players, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Carl Ablett, will hang up their boots after the club’s final game of the season, at home to Warrington Wolves.
Both have seven Grand Final wins to their name, but while Ablett has not played this year because of injury, Jones-Buchanan is set to go out all guns blazing. He was a try scorer against Salford last week, in his first game since suffering a back/hamstring injury in May, and will captain the team when he pulls on his beloved blue and amber for the 421st time.
Jones-Buchanan, 38, made his debut in May, 1999, under coach Graham Murray. He has been a stalwart through relegation battles and trophy triumphs, but is determined to keep his emotions in check, for the 80 minutes of action at least.
“I have thought about it from all kinds of avenues and, to be honest, most of my emotions in the last three months, while I’ve been trying to recover, have been concerns at how it could just potentially fizzle out,” he admitted.
Actually playing last weekend has given me a bit of renewed spirit and, I have to say, the lads have been absolutely brilliant.
“I have played with about 150 different players and most of them have come and gone, but I don’t think I have ever experienced it when the players have been so welcoming and accommodating and reverent to someone like myself.
“That has been really nice. Even though we’ve had a difficult year, some of the relationships I have built up with some of the younger players going into this new era has been outstanding.
“I wouldn’t change a thing, just for that reason alone.”
Jones-Buchanan was outstanding last week, but stressed he won’t be changing his mind.
“There’s no regrets, whatsoever,” he said. “There’s a part of me really looking forward to the next bit. I have been wandering around Headingley since I was five or six years old, I became a South Stander and I have been blessed to fulfil a boyhood dream and play for Leeds.
“Now I am going into the next chapter, where I can try and help continue the great work Leeds do. It’s not just about the rugby, there is so much benevolence and life-enriching projects that go on at Headingley. I can be a part of that and not just at Headingley, but also Leeds as a wider city. There’s loads to do and I am really excited about the next chapter.”
Jones-Buchanan will split his time between working for Rhinos and for the club’s foundation.
“I will do 20 hours a week with the foundation helping them fulfil their projects,” he confirmed. “Then the other half of my role will be with Leeds Rhinos. That will be determined by what Rich [Agar, Leeds’ head coach] wants for his coaching staff so that remains to be seen, but I could be helping out with commercial stuff, media stuff, there is loads there.
“I have been so fortunate, I have my finger in so many pies I am genuinely not that fussy about what I do next. I enjoy representing [the club and himself] and learning new things.”
Looking back on his remarkable career, Jones-Buchanan picked out a game he didn’t play in as his most memorable moment. He suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks before Leeds’ Challenge Cup final against Hull KR at Wembley in 2015, but was part of the Royal Box presentation.
“The spirit of what my generation was all about stood up when Kev [Sinfield] took me up to receive the trophy,” he recalled. “That was the epicentre of my experiences. It personified what my group was all about.”
Other highlights include the World Club Challenge win over Melbourne Storm at Elland Road and playing at Test level. He said: “I have never been the biggest, strongest or fastest, but when I did get to my peak around 2011, representing my country was massive.
“I think that was right at the centre of my stewardship of the 11 shirt as well. I had the No 11 shirt for 11 years and I think 2011 was probably my strongest year. There are loads of good memories and symbolic moments.”
As for tomorrow, Jones-Buchanan wants to finish with a win – and preferably a hat-trick to pass Ablett’s total of 80 Rhinos tries!
“I’ll be going for it,” he joked. “I want to give credit to Abbo, what a great player he has been. When I think about some of the back-rowers I have shared with, I think Abbo, Ali Lauitiiti and Gareth Ellis have been right up there as legendary players of Leeds and the British game.
“It is a shame to see Abbo finish, but he will be remembered in the highest regard. I have always been really competitive with him and it has always been a healthy competition – we have driven and pushed each other on. I always like to win and, if I’ve got one more chance for another win, I will have a dig.”