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Jonny May on his Lions snub, England and racing Rees-Zammit in training

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Next Friday night will be an interesting one for fans of Jonny May, the electric 30-something England winger. Leicester are due at Gloucester and while May has already come up against his old club since he dramatically bailed out of Tigers, that August 2020 match at Kingsholm was a behind closed doors affair unlike next weekend when the Shed and all other parts of the atmospheric stadium will be in full voice.

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It was August 2017 when Leicester brazenly did something rarely seen in world rugby recruitment, never mind in England, the buying out of a player’s existing contract so that he can make a club move. But that is what Tigers did to get May on board, stumping up for the remaining year of the speedster’s deal in the hope that the “out-and-out finisher with an outstanding try-scoring record” – as described by then Tigers boss Matt O’Connor – would deliver.

May certainly did keep up his end of the headline-generating agreement, scoring 24 tries in his 34 Premiership appearances. However, rather than challenge for titles, Leicester were floundering in quicksand at the wrong end of the table and the winger eventually felt it best for his career that he headed back to the club of his heart before the post-lockdown resumption of the delayed 2019/20 season 13 months ago.

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His return hasn’t been all sweetness and light. May had scored just twice in his dozen league appearances for the Cherry and Whites prior to Saturday’s try at Northampton. Meanwhile, his Gloucester team is still adjusting to the promptings of rookie boss George Skivington, the coach who succeeded Johan Ackermann just months after May had inked a deal to make his return with the South African in charge.

May has no regrets about any of it. None about re-joining a Gloucester side that has been shackled by inconsistencies in recent times. And none either about joining Leicester in the first place. “I’d still say it is a work in progress,” he told RugbyPass over a Zoom before the new season got started with Saturday’s 34-20 loss at Franklin’s Gardens.

“We haven’t arrived anywhere. We still know we need to get better and it will take him time. If you look at the best teams in the league they are teams that have had a lot of consistency in place over a long period of time, so George is hoping to keep making progress and the longer that goes on the better we will become. I’ll be honest, it was a tough few years at Leicester in terms of where the team were at that stage but I’d make the same decision again, it was part of my journey that I am grateful for.

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“It was a challenge that made me a better player. I met new friends, played in some big games, learned a lot, worked hard but ultimately I am happy to be back at Gloucester, of course I am. I am a better player for it and I just want to keep getting better and play some good rugby for Gloucester.

“Gloucester is a team that is closest to my heart, that is my club. The reason I left was to improve. I felt like I had to leave to get better. A tough decision to make and it’s a decision I would make again, but I had the opportunity to come back and I’m really pleased to be here.

“It is difficult to explain how it has been since I have been back because it has literally been such a crazy 18 months (due to the pandemic), so it almost feels like a fresh start this season for me and I’m just looking forward to getting out there and playing some good rugby.

“That was part of the appeal of coming back to Gloucester, I wanted to challenge myself and be in a back three with Zam (Louis Rees-Zammit) and (Ollie) Thorley, Jason Woodward, we have got Santiago Carreras, Kyle Moyle… you want to surround yourself with quality players because that brings the best out in you.”

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When May represented Gloucester at the new season Premiership launch at Twickenham on September 9, his Lions omission was the obvious go-to interview topic and he shrugged off that setback with a well-rehearsed answer. “You just can’t control selection,” he told everyone and anyone on the day. “I look back to that four-year cycle, the work I put in and the way I played, I didn’t really feel like I could have done any more.”

With enough said on that front, RugbyPass came at the issue from a different direction – May’s perspective of Rees-Zammit, his fellow Gloucester winger whose Welsh form seemed to better sit with Warren Gatland than May’s fortunes with England. When we spoke the pair still hadn’t caught up post-tour, the young Lions pick being still away on his holidays.

“To be honest I messaged him to say, ‘Well done, mate, well deserved and good luck on the tour’ and I haven’t spoken to him yet. In terms of talent and natural ability, he has got the world at his feet. He has got a great career ahead of him and Gloucester are lucky to have him,” he ventured before explaining what their speed rivalry is like on the training ground.

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I had a little race with him when I got there, he did beat me,” chuckled May, who is currently house-hunting having rented in Cheltenham since rejoining Gloucester last year. “As I said, Zam is as fast as the guys I have come across but to be able to train with him and to try and keep up with him and to challenge myself against someone like him every week is exactly what I want to be doing. I want to be challenged. When we get our back three out there at Gloucester we have got potentially the fastest back three in the league. It’s a real strength for us, it’s a good group to be a part of.”

The most pressing question May will face in the season ahead is whether he will remain a key part of the England group with the countdown now on towards the 2023 World Cup in France. It was last March, the day after defeat in Dublin confirmed a derisory fifth-place Six Nations finish, when the 31-year-old tweeted: “Not the way we hoped or wanted this campaign to go. However, growth cannot happen without challenge! Lessons will be learnt and progress will be made.”

Having had a summer off where he pointedly didn’t sit down to watch either England or the Lions in action, next Tuesday will be the first step towards returning to the thrust of Test rugby as Eddie Jones names his squad for the first camp of the season, an assembly that begins on September 26. May’s recent strike rate is six tries in 14 appearances since the 2019 World Cup final and the summer series ended with much chatter about some of the England newcomers, particularly Adam Radwan who scored three tries on debut.

What it all means for May we will know soon enough with the countdown now on towards a November series where Tonga, Australia and South Africa will be hosted at Twickenham on successive Saturdays. “Good question,” he said when asked about the jockeying for Test team position two years out from the next World Cup.

“Whether I’m involved or not, Eddie is the guy to do it. He is one of the best coaches I have worked under. He has a plan. Although that was a difficult Six Nations for us, if I look at the build-up to the last World Cup, the Six Nations two years before we came fifth or something, we went on a losing run of five games. Within a four-year cycle there is going to be challenges, losses, runs of bad form, people getting picked, people getting dropped and it’s all of those things are just things that are going to happen within a four-year cycle and it’s all about learning your lessons and getting the balances right and working out what the right thing is so we can get to a very good place come the end of the four-year cycle.

“Eddie is always working towards the World Cup. That is what he did last time and we gave ourselves every chance of winning the last one. We’re halfway through the four-year cycle, we are not where we need to be just yet but you wouldn’t want to be either. It’s just a case of having faith in Eddie. He has got some things to work out and so do we as players, but I have no doubt that under Eddie and this group of players that we have that come 2023 we will be a very, very competitive team.

“I didn’t watch any rugby over the summer,” added May, “but it’s just the circle of life, isn’t it, there are always new players coming through. I have always been in an environment where I am in a group of wingers or players that is very, very competitive – it’s fine margins between who is ahead of who at this stage of time. There are new good players coming through and there is an absolutely huge selection of very, very good wingers across the Premiership. But I don’t think about that, though. I just want to focus on myself. All I ever focus on is myself and just try and be better.”

That has unflinchingly been his steeled attitude from day one way back when he first played for Gloucester in 2009. Never look too far ahead and instead only deal with the here and now. “The way I was and the way I still am is very much one day at a time trying to get better. I’m the sort of guy who is hard on myself so I am always in between looking forward to what I need to do better for the next game or what can I do better from the last game and I haven’t really thought much past that the whole time really.

“I am still of that same mindset and for where I am now I just need to stick with that mindset. Eventually, at some time when rugby does finish, I can look back and reflect but I haven’t got the time or in the position to be doing that at the moment because I just need to keep my focus on what I am at.”

Keeping his wheels well oiled is of paramount importance. “I’m lucky I have got lots of experiences with lots of different coaches throughout my career and I am always picking up bits and bobs from numerous people. I have been in conversations with Dan Pfaff throughout last season. He works at a training centre in America and trains Andre De Grasse, Greg Rutherford and people like those.

“He is as good as they get in terms of knowledge of elite sport and performance. I have had a couple of trips to America. Dan Tobin at Gloucester is world-class, Tom Tombleson at England is world-class. I was lucky enough to have people like Marlon Devonish coach me in my early years at Gloucester, so I just absorb as much information as I can from as many people as I can and work out what works for me really.

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“I have always looked after my body very well. Recovery is important to me. I’m always doing things to make sure I stay fresh and healthy and I’m feeling good but there is no magic answer to that, it’s just keep chipping away, keep trying to get better, keep working hard, stay healthy is probably the most important thing. I don’t think it is necessarily age that can get you down, it’s injury, bad injuries that you are more likely to get the longer you are in the sport kind of thing. So as long as you can stay healthy and keep working hard you can keep getting better.

“Of course there are things that you wish for, you dream of and you aim towards – ie: winning trophies, playing for your country, going to World Cups, going on Lions tours, they are all the things that you want to achieve and every player wants to achieve those things but, as I said, my mindset is narrowing my focus to be better each week and it’s still exactly where it is.

“I’m not that sort of (outgoing) guy. I don’t really go around town. I go in, get my work done, go home, I’m a private person. The main thing is my rugby so I just focus on getting ready to play each week and I love playing at Kingsholm, love playing for Gloucester.

“I can consistently do the boring things over and over in my recovery or my diet or making sure I sleep well. It’s a lifestyle and a commitment to being focused and that is something that I do and have been able to do for a long period of time. Being energised, what you put in your mouth and your sleep are probably the two most important things I pay attention to.”

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Jonny May on his Lions snub, England and racing Rees-Zammit in training

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