'If I'm honest, when I left, I was fed up with the club. I felt stagnant'
“If I’m honest, when I left, I was fed up with the club. I felt stagnant and like I was underachieving; like I needed a new challenge.”
Jonny May speaks to me via Zoom, sat in front of a huge Gloucester Rugby badge. It adorns the wall of one of the offices at Kingsholm, from where he is conducting interviews. It is the same badge that sits on his chest. The same badge he left behind in August 2017, in a deal that sent the rugby world into something of a spin.
Nearly three years to the day and he has returned. A prodigal son of sorts. This is, after all, his home. He came up through the Hartpury academy ranks, spent eight seasons climbing the Cherry and White ladder. His Wiltshire accent swirling around his vowels as he speaks, his face illuminating as he talks of his dad and how excited he will be to see the boy flying down the wing, in front of the Shed again.
“I thought when I left that I might not ever have the opportunity to come back. So I am very lucky. Maybe I could have done one more year at Leicester but I am back here. I have a spring in my step; I want to come to work every day, and these are all things that are very important to me.”
It was an odyssey that he talks of in vague terms. He doesn’t take my invitation to open up fully but it is clear he looks back at it all as an experience that has improved him.
“I’m a very loyal person. I don’t like change very much so it (the move to Leicester in 2017) was a very tough thing for me to do. But 100%, I needed it. When I signed there, I really did think we were going to win trophies. It ended up being very different. It was a difficult few seasons. But I still got that challenge. And I’m a better player for it.”
“The move back wasn’t an easy decision. I sat down with David (Humphreys) and heard what he had to say. Leicester had Steve Borthwick coming in, that was a big draw, I’d worked with him, I like him, there was a chance to see if we could turn it around but this (Kingsholm) is where my heart is, if I’m honest. It’s closer to my family. It came down to which contract gave me the most positivity and desire, gave me the push I needed. In the end, it was Gloucester who gave me those feelings.”
Some raised an eyebrow at May’s re-signing. The wing was an area in which Gloucester had a wealth of talent; May’s signature was seen by a few as an extravagance. Of course, when you think about it, from Jonny’s perspective, the talent already in place only made it more appealing.
“There’s some really good young wingers here that I want to compete with, in the right way. That’s what I wanted, what I needed. I want to bring them on but also be pushed by them. I saw that as an opportunity to get better, to have a challenge.”
But what of the changes that have happened in between his signing and now. May put pen to paper with the previous Director of Rugby and will play his first game back for the club under a different management set-up.
“Nothing has changed for me. As you get older you kinda care less about the sideshow, or whatever you want to call it, going on around you. You can’t control it or necessarily affect it. It’s a crazy time at pretty much every club at the moment. You just have to get on with your job. I haven’t been that bothered by it; I’ve met Skivs (George Skivington) and he’s a great guy, we’ve got Alex King coming in with a superb reputation and we have, fundamentally, the same group of brilliant players. I just can’t wait for the rugby to start again.”
There is a growing contingent of people who view May as essential to Eddie Jones’ England side and it’s not difficult to see why. Even though his Tigers time didn’t work in the way he wanted, the last three years have seen May score 19 tries in 29 international appearances. If you ask fans to put an England back three together, May’s inclusion is almost universally agreed. I ask if he’s noticed that change?
“It’s lovely to hear that people think that about me. All I’ve done is the same thing for a very, very long time; I’ve kept working on my game. I’ve had people comment on the fact that I am better than I used to be, but the improvements for me have been gradual, so it’s difficult to notice them. But I guess I’ve been playing a lot of test matches, been around a lot of top coaches, top players for the last few years. And I’m a sponge; I’ve kept my head down and kept working hard.”
But there is a noticeable development. And it is evident in the way he speaks and answers my questions. He seems to have found himself. Found the time and weight to his character where previously he was more frivolous, perhaps more flippant. If you speak to the Gloucester players about the May of before, they will regale you with wonderful stories about laughter and silliness. But this isn’t that Jonny. And with that change, his game has grown. There was always the talent, but perhaps now there’s a greater understanding of himself as a player, which gives that talent greater depth and consistency.
“I have an appreciation for where my mindset is now. My game understanding and what I am as a player, what is expected of me, week in week out, what my role is on a game day, and that gives me clarity. And that clarity, ultimately, is what gives me consistency. I am confident in what I do, perhaps more so now. But my attitude to each day has not changed. Every day, I get up and think about what will make me better; do everything the best I can. Leave no stone unturned. And then get up and do it the next day. And if things are going great, then brilliant, and if things are going bad, tough luck, get up and do it anyway. That’s my mindset.”
And we are looking down the barrel of potentially twelve months of unrelenting rugby. Does he dare think about next summer and the Lions?
“Of course you do. There are things I want to achieve as a player, but all I can control is my performance. I think Eddie (Jones) has taught me that. When Eddie came in we all wanted to get picked for that game or this game, but you have your role to do, and that is what you have to concentrate on. I want to go on a Lions tour, play for England and Gloucester as much as I can, but as appealing as those thoughts are, they are a distraction to me. In terms of the playing schedule, I knew too well when I was sitting at home, having done a nice training session, had a nice breakfast, sitting there watching a Netflix boxset, or in the garden in the sun; I knew there would be a price for this. But that is why it was good; I used the time to become as resilient as possible. I had to get my hips, my core, my hamstrings as resilient as possible, and that is what I’ve been concentrating on: body resilience for a load of rugby coming our way. I’ve been like a bear getting ready for hibernation, getting stocked up on everything.”
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A grin flashes briefly and there is a glimmer of the old Jonny as he realises how much fun he could have with that last simile. And when I point that out, he concedes that is where the most change has taken place.
“When I was last here, I was much more about jokes and fun and wanting to be the centre of attention. And I still can be, because you need different characters in this game. But it just means too much to me now, not to be focused. I had an interview just before you and they asked if I would describe myself in three words and I thought; autistic, OCD and anxious, because I am still those things, but there is more focus nowadays.”
“I feel more comfortable with myself. I know what I do. I lie awake at night beating myself up but I also know that I will do that, and I understand that is the process that I go through. So that makes it easier; I’m used to it, in a way. But I don’t want to speak too soon. I know what this game is like. Rugby’s an enigma code; the answer changes each week; it is never the same. But yeah, you’re right, I think I am being truer to myself. But I haven’t cracked it.”
Gloucester need revitalising and, after a tricky period, have done some excellent recruitment both on and off the field. But May’s re-signing could be the pivotal move. Not just because he is a player at the very top of his game, but because he represents a telling adage for everyone at Kingsholm: change can always work if you are prepared to work hard.
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