The 37-year-old Leeds veteran explains how his Christian faith has underpinned his career and why he would be keen for at least another year playing for his hometown club.
Growing up in a working‑class suburb of Leeds dreaming of becoming a professional rugby player, Jamie Jones‑Buchanan always knew he was different. “I always believed in something when I was younger, but I didn’t really know what it was,” he admits. “How could I really? I’m just a lad from Bramley who wanted to make it and realise his dreams as a rugby player.”
Jones-Buchanan emphatically ticks all the boxes for people who may have in mind a stereotype of an English rugby league player. The strong northern accent, the passion for the sport, the imposing frame – and the mental and physical battle scars from a near 20-year career.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the perception soon changes. Most people have their own ways of unwinding after a tough day at the office; Jones-Buchanan spends his spare time at the City Evangelical Church in Beeston, Leeds, sharing his beliefs and practising Christianity.
The 37-year-old, who has spent his entire career with his hometown club, began his journey via the wisdom of a new teammate. “In 2004 Leeds signed a bloke called Ali Lauiti’iti,” Jones-Buchanan says. “He had a different feel to him immediately; he was this burly bloke who carried the ball like a peanut – but he was different away from the game.
If it was up to me, I wouldn’t play on the Sabbath. But I know I couldn’t share stories like these without playing rugby . “I didn’t know at the time, but it was a life-changing opportunity when he offered to take me to church for the first time. I always had Christianity close to me; my nana would say her prayers on a night and I’d do school nativities and things like that, but theologically speaking, I had no idea what the Bible stood for until that day.”
Rugby league is renowned for its physical toughness, but the mental strain is almost as visible on players such as Jones-Buchanan. There have been the highs of winning eight Grand Finals during his career but also the devastating lows: and his faith has perhaps never been more important than it has this year.
Leeds, the defending Super League champions, are in a remarkable battle to avoid relegation. Jones-Buchanan’s involvement has been limited because of a recurring knee injury and he admits his days remaining in the game are limited.
‘I still feel like there’s one more year left in me,’ he says. “When I go through adverse periods in playing, that trust and belief in Christ is truly what keeps me believing and gets me ready to go again,” Jones-Buchanan says. “You can draw real, tangible links to biblical figures who have endured hardships and times of toughness. This season in particular has been easier to handle in the darker moments because of that. It’s absolutely priceless.
“I’ve won countless trophies and achieved a lot, but as we stand right here … it counts for nothing really, does it? Nothing lasts forever, everything is finite, and that directly relates to sport. Whatever I achieve in sport is limited and I refer often to building treasure in heaven. That’s something which lasts eternally.”
On Sunday Leeds travel to the London Broncos for a game that could go a long way towards securing their Super League survival. As a devout Christian, it might be anticipated that Jones‑Buchanan is reluctant to play, but he insists: “People think it’s a box-ticking exercise … that you have to be in church every single Sunday. People also think church is full of people like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It’s like sport so much; we’re all there trying to achieve the common goal, from a bunch of different backgrounds. If it was up to me I wouldn’t play sport on the Sabbath. But I know that I couldn’t share stories like these without playing rugby.”
Jones-Buchanan is well known within the sport for his entrepreneurial exploits; he presents a weekly TV show about the game and is a regular pundit for the BBC . He has even ventured into amateur dramatics as he prepares for life after rugby league.
But his faith has also opened doors he could have never imagined growing up. “I’ve done testimonies for the church everywhere,” he says with a smile of pride. “Warrington, St Helens … even on a barge in Canary Wharf once. That was a bit weird. But it’s an incredible journey, rugby league and faith – and they intertwine more than people realise. Rugby has some brilliant chaplains in it and the people involved care about faith deeply.”
And his teammates’ response? “It’s funny … I get asked by the lads and I have invited them to church before,” he says. “I think some people, who don’t really know what it’s about, can be a bit stiff-necked about it when they see big islanders praying on the field after the game – and I think most people are happy for me to get on with it. But we have a responsibility to preach what we believe in. I wouldn’t stop.”
Nor will Jones-Buchanan’s playing career end just yet, particularly with his best friend, the Leeds legend Kevin Sinfield, now coaching the Rhinos. “Religion is a lot about succession and what’s next in life, and I do think about that with my career often,” he admits.
“I still feel like there’s one more year left in me for whatever reason though. I know I wouldn’t play quite as prominent a role as I have but if Kev told me he wanted to go round one more time? I probably would. I’ve still got plenty to give back to rugby league and the city of Leeds.”
This article first appeared in the Guardian online