His boyish looks and effortless stride on the field might belie it, but Ben Jones-Bishop has got to Wembley the hard way. Jones-Bishop, who will play on the wing for Leeds in Saturday's Challenge Cup final against Wigan, celebrated his 23rd birthday this week. He has packed rather a lot into that young career – not all of it easy to deal with.
At 16, he lost his place on Leeds' scholarship scheme. "Their decision – I just hadn't grown enough. So I went back to my amateur club at Queens, played OK and got taken back at 18."
There was still no obviously quick and easy way into the star-studded Rhinos team for an aspiring young outside back, so he had to take another route. At the start of last season, still with only a handful of first-team appearances behind him, he went on loan to Harlequins. That had the benefit of giving him regular Super League rugby and also made him the Leeds player best acquainted with the coaching of Brian McDermott, who this season took over at Headingley. "He took a bit of a gamble on me, with me not having played much first-team football," Jones-Bishop says.
If it was a gamble, it was one that paid off swiftly, with the newcomer playing so well at full-back that McDermott, not given to throwing praise around like confetti, was soon touting him as an England player. "It was a bit of a surprise when I saw that, because I felt I was just starting out, but it was a definite boost."
That dream had to be put to one side in April, however, when Jones-Bishop suffered the sort of horrific injury that could have finished a less determined young man.
It was in the first half of the match at Saturday's opponents, Wigan, that he had an apparently innocuous clash of heads with the Warriors' forward, Lee Mossop. "I didn't think anything of it and I played on for the 25 minutes to half-time. But in the changing rooms I had a headache and felt generally a bit rubbish. The doctor looked at it and told me I'd got a fractured skull."
Jones-Bishop was taken to hospital, leaving his family distressed by reports that he had "a hole in his head". "Lee Mossop's head must be a lot harder than mine," he says. "I'll be keeping out of his way at Wembley!"
The damage was between his eyes, not far from the bridge of his nose; according to him, not a bad place to fracture your skull, if you have to do it. There is little to see now, but there are three metal plates holding everything in place. He also wears head protection on medical advice, but otherwise carries on as normal.
Leeds had already decided to bring him back from his productive exile in London before they appointed McDermott as head coach in succession to the departing New Zealander Brian McClennan.
For Jones-Bishop, it was an overdue stroke of luck. "When I knew I was going back to Leeds, I thought I'd have to prove myself all over again to a new coach. But then Brian got the job and he'd already shown a lot of confidence in me."
That confidence is in the process of being repaid, but only after another major setback – a dislocated shoulder a couple of months into the season. "It was just a matter of working hard to get right again. I got back after eight weeks, which was four weeks ahead of schedule."
Since then, he has been making up for lost time, tying down the Rhinos' right-wing spot ahead of other candidates like the England international Lee Smith, and the highly-promising Featherstone recruit Zak Hardaker.
Part of the reason is that, apart from his pace and grace on the ball, Jones-Bishop is probably best equipped to deal with the inevitable onslaught of kicks aimed at Wigan's prolific wingman Pat Richards. "They score a lot of points through that, so I'll need to be ready," says Jones-Bishop, who amidst his burgeoning career has found time to earn a degree in Sports Science from Sheffield Hallam University. "My mum's a big believer in education."
His rugby league education has been a stop-start affair and he faces his most searching examination on Saturday. In one sense, it is the relative inexperience of players like him and – if he is fit – his centre partner Kallum Watkins that could be their great asset on the day.
If senior Rhinos are still haunted by their failure against Warrington last season – they lost 30-6 – then Jones-Bishop sees it all differently. "They can draw motivation from that, but it's all new to me," he says. It's the sort of optimism Leeds will need to stage a great Wembley upset.Reuse content