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FEATURE Why Gloucester and England will miss Jonny May, the great entertainer

Why Gloucester and England will miss Jonny May, the great entertainer
1 month ago

When Eddie Jones was England coach he once called Jonny May in for a one-to-one chat. Jones was exasperated at the bizarre baggage which came with his flying wing, the most recent example of which at the time was the claim that May was possessed by a chicken demon.

Danny Care had revealed this golden nugget, with the corollary that May would go around the England camp clucking, to a fascinated press corps.

It followed on from the North Korean episode which ended up with May receiving an official invitation from the embassy of the outcast nuclear state after he talked about his fascination with it. That had led May, after consulting his mum, to ring Jones in a panic asking for an RFU-backed response to the request. Jones’s curt suggestion was to tell Pyongyang to ‘f*** off.

Jones did not care for the peripheral nonsense and told May so in direct terms – it had to stop, he said – but the problem was his England teammates loved it.

In the prescripted environment in which they operated, here was an individual who brought light and life with his eccentricity.

Much as he didn’t rate it himself, Jones could see this.

When the chant went up from the squad for May to “lay an egg, lay an egg” in one team meeting, a resigned Jones caved in.

Jonny May
Jonny May has had a stellar career in English memory and will be fondly remembered (Photo Stephen White/Getty Images)

He gave May the nod. May walked to the front and, after a squat, dropped a pool ball to the floor before walking off again to huge cheers.

May, who retired from England after the World Cup, will wave goodbye to English rugby altogether after Friday’s night EPCR Challenge Cup final.

He will be departing Gloucester for foreign shores with France or the USA his likely destination.

It is safe to say he will be an impossible act to replace.

“He is mad as a box of frogs. He is a character and he will be missed,” said Gloucester teammate Freddie Clarke.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the film ‘Split’ but that’s him. I don’t know how many different personalities he has got.”

This will be May’s second exit from Gloucester having enjoyed a three-season run with Leicester in the middle but it is as a Cherry and White that he will be remembered.

The local boy who made good.

How good is spelled out by his try-scoring numbers – 74 for Gloucester and 36 for England. Only Rory Underwood managed eclipsed that for his country.

For all that the England try list suggests otherwise, May would not instinctively be regarded as an all-time great. A great athlete? Definitely. A great rugby player? The jury would be out on that.

It wasn’t like all of them were tap-ins either.

The phenomenal try he scored against Ireland during Covid would have had Twickenham on its feet had there been anyone there in much the same way that his solo classic against New Zealand did. May revealed after that one that he had been listening to the soundtrack from the Disney animation Frozen on the team bus on the way to the game for motivation.

His X-factor has always been his scalding pace and the ability that has given him to make something out of nothing but, ironically, that gift has also counted against him in terms of how he is regarded.

For all that the England try list suggests otherwise, May would not instinctively be regarded as an all-time great.

A great athlete? Definitely. A great rugby player? The jury would be out on that.

Jonny May
Jonny May scored some scintillating tries for England with 36 tries in 78 appearances (Photo Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

The fact that he never made the Lions – a source of significant personal disappointment – means he would probably fall into the very good category in the final reckoning.

Still, that is an outstanding career return for someone who you would not regard as a natural.

The time he had to pack down as an emergency flanker for England against Argentina and ended up making unwanted advances on his own prop Mako Vunipola revealed a fish very definitely out of water.

But for all the laughs, English rugby in this era has not seen a player as committed to being the best he can be – and that includes the Farrells and Fords.

The lengths to which he went to in order to have his body right for rugby were extraordinary. The daily stretching sessions, the red-light therapy, the saunas, the ice baths, the therapy guns, the joint oils…no box went unticked, no corner was cut.

If he started out as basically a sprinter in rugby boots instead of spikes he turned himself into so much more by dint of his dedication.

He developed into a brilliant high-ball operator which meant he could be an asset in a tight as well as a loose game plan.

He came to be a reliable defender too – a key to John Mitchell’s England system with the timing of his press.

The lengths to which he went to in order to have his body right for rugby were extraordinary.

The daily stretching sessions, the red-light therapy, the saunas, the ice baths, the therapy guns, the joint oils…no box went unticked, no corner was cut.

Jonny May
Jonny May’s preparation and attention-to-detail saw him making the best of his natural ability (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

He even bought his own hyperbaric chamber which he would sit in for an hour a day to flood his body with oxygen.

“He is the epitome of what it takes to be a modern professional – I question how many hours in the day he has to do what he does,” said Clarke.

When he was struck down with an ACL injury his rehab buy-in – which included flying to Texas to work at the Michael Johnson Performance Centre – meant he actually returned quicker than before the injury.

He part-funded a return to the facility a couple of years later in his bid to become the world’s fastest wing.

Jones ended up calling him his Ferrari.

He’s a different character but as we have got nearer to the end of the season we’ve felt more and more emotional about Jonny leaving.

Ruan Ackermann

It is almost time for him to drive off into the sunset. His career at Gloucester, which began in the club’s academy and saw him make his debut way back in 2009, ends in the magnificent surroundings of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Friday night.

“He’s a different character but as we have got nearer to the end of the season we’ve felt more and more emotional about Jonny leaving,” said Gloucester teammate Ruan Ackermann.

Wings cannot go on burning up the grass forever. At 34 there are speedier models on the forecourt now. But it would be fitting to see May scything through one more defence for one last spectacular score in Cherry and White.

For English rugby, he has been a great entertainer in every sense.

Comments

2 Comments
T
Tom 32 days ago

As a youngster he was just a drag racer who loved to run sideways across the pitch but for a couple of years under Eddie Jones, May became an exceptional player. Jones heralded him as the most professional player he'd ever worked with. I'd say in his prime he was in the top five wingers aerially, he was like a salmon and his defensive work was amazing. I feel like he was Jones’ Private Pyle and he moulded him into a savage. Add those traits to being one of the fastest blokes in rugby and yes for a while, he was world class. Probably coincides with his time at Leicester too. At Gloucester and under other England coaches he didn't reach such heights.

D
Diarmid 33 days ago

Any indication as to where he is headed? I can see him fitting in at a Bayonne or a Perpignan and equally so in Japan.

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