From butcher to back row starter - JJ Tonks talks about his journey to Saints

JJ Tonks has already made a big impression at Saints
JJ Tonks has already made a big impression at Saints

JJ Tonks has gone from working as a butcher in New Zealand to carving up in the Gallagher Premiership with Saints.

The talented 19-year-old was handed his first league start last Saturday - and it couldn't have gone much better.

Tonks wore the seven shirt and went up against established Premiership performers such as Calum Clark and Ben Earl as Saints secured a stunning 27-25 win at champions Saracens.

James Grayson landed a last-gasp penalty to make sure of the points.

And Tonks, who was part of a back row that also included 20-year-old Alex Coles and 32-year-old Tom Wood, loved every second of his Allianz Park outing.

"It was an awesome result and I obviously got my Prem debut, which was a nice feeling," said Tonks.

"We knew what we had to do, try to bring the elements that were our strengths.

"Playing out of position was never going to be easy for me, but me Colesy and Woody linked up quite well.

"I mainly play at six, but when I was younger I played a lot of seven so it was good to get back to that."

When he joined Saints during the summer, Tonks would only have dreamed of getting so much game time so early in his Franklin's Gardens career.

After all, he had the likes of Teimana Harrison, Jamie Gibson, Lewis Ludlam, Heinrich Brüssow and Wood ahead of him in the flanker pecking order.

But with Ludlam at the World Cup with England, Gibson on his way back from injury, Brüssow forced into early retirement and Wood needed at No.8 in Harrison's absense, Tonks got his shot on day one of the Premiership campaign.

And it probably helped him that the call came so late, with Harrison withdrawing 24 hours before kick-off due to a chest injury.

"I found out I'd be starting at Friday team run and it was an awesome feeling," Tonks said.

"Words can't really describe it to be honest with you.

"I just try to learn all the roles across the back row in training on Monday and Tuesday so if there are changes I can just slip into it a bit easier.

"Woody is obviously an experienced player and of course he helped me.

"There's a lot to learn."

But Tonks is not someone who is scared of learning lessons, in rugby or in life.

And a spell in New Zealand not so long ago has clearly stood him in good stead.

He explained: "I started out at Gloucester, my home town, so I went into the Academy there from a young age.

"I went through the age-group stuff there and had a bit of involvement at Under-18 level with England.

"I flew out to New Zealand and was there for six months, playing for Otago and flew back, then this opportunity arose.

"I had literally turned 18 and was out to New Zealand on my own.

"It's quite a big thing as an 18-year-old flying over there on my own and it definitely taught me some life lessons.

"I had to get a job out there and I worked as a butcher in New World, which is the equivalent of Sainsbury's so it taught me a lot about life.

"Rugby was part-time over there for me so I'd train Tuesdays and Thursdays and play at the weekend.

"Playing in the Premiership was a nice goal to set for myself."

Tonks' switch to Saints was aided by the fact he knew Ollie Sleightholme, with the pair having played together previously, for an England sevens side.

"For the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2017 we flew out to the Bahamas and I played alongside Ollie Sleightholme in the sevens, which was pretty cool," Tonks said.

"We came second and just lost to Fiji, I think.

"Sleights obviously gave me a small insight into the club and he was helpful in me making my decision.

"There's a lot of history to this club and it's awesome to be part of it.

"I found out I'd be coming here in the middle of this year and it was a big move for me."

But Tonks has certainly not been overawed by life in Northampton.

And he is now desperate to keep building on the good experiences he has already had, one of which was being part of a Saints win at Leicester just a couple of weeks ago.

"I'm really enjoying my rugby at the minute," said Tonks, who has started three of Saints' five matches in all competitions this season.

"I've had lots of opportunities to show what I can do, and hopefully there's more to come."