Jonny Lomax's career reaches its high point so far when he plays scrum-half for St Helens in today's Super League Grand Final, but it is a career that was almost over before it began.
As a 15-year-old schoolboy, Lomax fractured his skull so badly in a Year Nine final that he was "touch and go" when he was rushed to hospital. He still has three titanium plates implanted as a souvenir of what could have been serious brain damage. "At first I thought it was just concussion, and I'd had concussion before," he says. "But five days later I was still having headaches and feeling ill. My mum's a nurse and she wasn't happy about it."
The hospital later told him that he had been taken there just in time. He had an emergency brain operation to relieve the pressure from internal bleeding and woke up a day later with a head full of stitches. "They told me it would be two years to recover, but I was back playing in 10 months."
Ever since then, like one of his Leeds opponents today, Ben Jones-Bishop, who suffered a similar injury last year, he has worn head-gear. Largely as a result of his case, head protection has become mandatory for young players between six and 16.
It is a chastening thought for Lomax that not only a sports career but a normal, independent life could have ended right there. "I don't take anything for granted," he says.
Another way of putting it is he is still stunned about the progress he has made this season. "I can only describe it as surreal," he says. "I only started this season with one target and that was to make 17 appearances, because that was one more than last year."
Those 16 games in 2010 included playing on the wing in the Grand Final defeat by Wigan, but he also played full-back, centre, hooker and both half-back positions. He was clearly a player of potential, but one in search of a role.
This season has been different. The unavailability for most of the campaign of Kyle Eastmond and Leon Pryce – both of whom are departing after this game – has meant Saints have needed a new half-back combination and in Lomax and his contemporary Lee Gaskell they have found it. The pair might have been relatively light on first-team experience at the start of this year, but they already had plenty of experience of each other's games.
"We played against each other from the age of 10, me for Orrell St James' and him for Blackbrook, and in the town team together from 11," Lomax says. "We've a lot of respect for each other. We don't just get on together on the pitch, we're good mates off it as well, which helps."
A contrast in styles helps. Gaskell is long, lean and deceptive, a little in the Pryce mould, while Lomax, now he has settled into his favourite scrum-half role, recalls the organisational bustle of recent Saints specialists in the position like Bobbie Goulding and Sean Long.
Those were the sort of players he grew up watching, because, although he comes from the village of Billinge, halfway between Wigan and St Helens, it was always Saints for him. "That's why it's a dream come true for me. I used to sit in the stands and watch Saints and say 'Yes, these are the games I want to be involved in. Now, being talked about in the same breath as players like them... I have to go back to that word surreal."
Turning the surreal into reality has depended heavily on the faith Saints' coach, Royce Simmons, has shown in Lomax and other young players. "He said at the start of the year I'd get a run at half-back and the confidence he has shown in me has made all the difference," Lomax says.
Now there is every possibility that he will also be named in the England squad for the Four Nations on Monday – another landmark in a career that might never have happened.Reuse content